While much of the focus has been on virtual reality in 2016, the notion of mixed reality is starting to creep into the wearable conversation.
In this new format of our weekly #Trending feature, we look at this other kind of wearable technology and discover why the smartglasses and VR headsets of the future may do more than just drop us into virtual worlds.
What's it all about?
Unlike virtual reality, which drops us into fully-fledged computer worlds explorable via 360-degree head tracking and room-scale sensors, mixed reality blends the virtual and real worlds. And that promises an exciting future. The dream of true mixed reality offers users the chance to interact with completely virtual objects, offering a whole new kind of experience.
And there's no doubt it's on the way. "Everything is heading towards mixed reality," Tang from Avegant told Wareable features editor Sophie Charara at Web Summit 2016 in Lisbon. "When mixed reality is done correctly, VR becomes a sub-segment of mixed reality."
Who are the big players?
Currently Microsoft is the biggest player in mixed reality, and its HoloLens headset bucks the trend set by the likes of Oculus and Vive, which purely focus on full virtual experiences. It also announced that it's working on a new, cheaper mixed reality headset reference design, with partners such as Dell and HP on-board.
But they're not the only ones. The mysterious Magic Leap project promises a new take on mixed reality, and the little we know about the tech points to projecting virtual images onto the user's retina via its "photonic lightfield chip".
Intel has also jumped on the bandwagon with Project Alloy, a mixed reality headset that resembles the Samsung Gear VR, but includes motion sensors and cameras to "merge" real and virtual elements together.
It's not just headset makers getting in on the act. Leap Motion is another huge player in mixed reality, thanks to its 3D sensing tech. It can translate a user's hands into the virtual world, enabling objects to be picked up and manipulated, and the company is set to be a key player in the future of the medium.
Meta 2 is another headset that's similar to Microsoft's headgear. However HoloLens has a tiny field of view and so far, Magic Leap only has videos showing people reaching out and grabbing objects, Meta 2 actually let use do it during a demo. Granted it wasn't a perfect experience but reaching out to pull a shoe from an Amazon webpage and seeing it in 3D right in front of us was impressive.
What can we use it for?
When it comes to the applications of mixed reality, we've barely scratched the surface of what's possible. Most current ideas are slightly less sexy than you'd imagine, but game-changers none-the-less.
Microsoft tried to ship HoloLens headsets to the International Space Station last year to help astronauts fix systems in space by overlaying instructions and diagrams into their peripheral vision. Unfortunately, the SpaceX flight exploded on take off, taking the HoloLens headsets with them.
But there are obviously benefits for us average Joes too. Pokémon Go has done much to explore more entertaining uses of mixed reality and devices like the Recon Jet cycling glasses signal a future where turn-by-turn directions could appear like a heads up display, rather than distracting you with a second screen. What's more, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson has announced he's getting involved with Magic Leap through his New Zealand-based special effects company Weta Digital.
What are Apple doing with it?
This is where things get really interesting. This week at Web Summit, industry analyst Robert Scoble revealed that Apple was looking at a mixed reality headset within the next 11 months. This has been backed up by a new patent that shows the company is pursuing a pair of smart specs that utilise the iPhone, much like the Samsung Gear VR. This, presumably, would use the device's camera to show the real world on screen, and able to insert virtual elements on top.
Scoble also revealed that he believed Apple would use this technology in a TV device, leveraging patents acquired from Presence, the company it snapped up way back in 2013, that uses 3D scanning to power the original Xbox Kinect.
Does AR or VR have a brighter future?
While AR and VR seem like natural bedfellows now, in the near future they will seem like chalk and cheese. While VR has huge implications for gaming and education – as well as promising signs treating patients with burn injuries – AR has far more practical applications.
The reason mixed reality is seen as such a boon is that the technology doesn't disengage the user from the real world – which is a big downside of modern virtual reality headsets. And don't take our word for it. Tim Cook's big on AR for the same reasons.
"There's virtual reality and there's augmented reality – both of these are incredibly interesting," Cook said on ABC News' Good Morning America. "But my own view is that augmented reality is the larger of the two, probably by far."
When will we be wearing mixed reality headsets?
That's the key question. With VR currently having its watershed moment, we might have to wait a few years for decent mixed reality. HoloLens is the best bet so far, but it's $3,000 price tag shows it's far from a consumer reality. Check back in 2018.
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