Mixed reality is the blending of physical and digital spaces.
- Mixed reality headsets rely on several components, such as cameras, to achieve the creation of augmented and virtual reality environments.
- Mixed reality is being used in small business for training, project development and sales.
- Headsets that are available now for use in business include the Microsoft HoloLens 2, Vuzix M400, Magic Leap, Google Glass Enterprise Edition 2 and DAQRI.
- Mixed reality is poised to transform more emerging fields, such as artificial intelligence.
Mixed reality is the blending of physical and digital spaces to various degrees. Both physical environments that are partially digitized (augmented reality) and wholly digital environments (virtual reality) are part of the umbrella technology known as mixed reality. These technologies are poised to become the next stage in the evolution of computing, taking our digital tools from the 2D space into an interactive 3D spatial experience.
Mixed reality is often associated with gaming and entertainment, but it has many more practical uses as well. Businesses are already experimenting with mixed reality to improve communications, training and problem-solving. As the technology improves, so will the use cases. Could we be on the cusp of a mixed reality revolution in business?
How do mixed reality devices work?
How does mixed reality work? The details are incredibly complex, but the basic concept relies on an interaction between headset hardware, mixed reality software and cloud-based servers. The headsets rely on several components to achieve the creation of augmented and virtual reality environments and the interactions users engage in with them. These components include a series of cameras, sensors and microphones that work together to identify and respond to the surrounding environment.
These hardware components work in tandem with software, which must create 3D digital elements to either overlay the physical environment (in the case of augmented reality) or create a new environment altogether (in the case of virtual reality). The software is critical to developing an immersive, holographic experience for users of mixed reality technology.
Mixed reality devices are typically connected to a remote server, which stores the virtual objects generated by the device. The server sends virtual objects to the device's processor, which then utilizes those images in its creation of augmented content. Servers also play an instrumental role in allowing real-time collaboration between multiple users in different locations.
Mixed reality for business
The question "how is mixed reality useful for business?" is broad and complex, according to Brave Williams, assistant professor at Husson University's New England School of Communications.
"This question is sort of like [asking], 'How would business benefit if every employee had a cell phone that gives them instant access to communication and documents on demand, 24 hours a day, seven days a week?'" Williams said. "The applications are as numerous as the diversity of businesses."
Here's a look at just some of the use cases mixed reality is already improving.
Mixed reality enables what is known as "experiential training" sessions, which allow employees to experience a situation firsthand in a simulated environment. This makes complex learning easier without risking any company assets in the process. The manufacturing industry, in particular, has already started taking advantage of mixed reality's experiential training, said Matan Libis, CEO of WakingApp.
"As opposed to having new hires spend weeks reading dense manuals and detailed safety protocols, AR is allowing manufacturers to create highly technical, on-the-job experiences that new hires can utilize to train," Libis said.
Another driver of mixed reality adoption in business is improved project development. For architects or builders, for example, a dynamic, 3D blueprint can improve planning and design when discussing a project with a client.
"Creating AR experiences that their clients can explore and interact with provides … an innovative way to communicate with clients," said Libis.
Finally, mixed reality can be used to drive sales, allowing customers to try on outfits before buying or see if a piece of furniture will fit in their home. IKEA recently announced it would launch an AR app (called IKEA Place) that customers can use to digitally place a product in their home to see whether it would fit and what it would look like. Warby Parker already combines AR technology and facial scanning to create a digital profile of what a customer would look like with a particular pair of glasses.
"Retail is the industry, outside of gaming and entertainment, that has been the most rapid adopters of this technology," Libis said. "Major players in the industry are starting to leverage AR specifically."
Mixed reality devices available today
Microsoft HoloLens 2
The Microsoft HoloLens 2 builds on the design of the original HoloLens, remaining untethered and highly mobile but also increasing the field of view. The HoloLens 2 upgrades the interface, allowing users to pinch and pull objects in a way that feels natural. It can also respond to voice commands using natural language processing.
The device includes 64GB of storage, 4GB of RAM and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 850 compute platform. It contains four visible light cameras for head tracking, as well as two IR cameras for eye tracking. It is also capable of capturing 8MP images and recording 1080p30 video. The Microsoft HoloLens 2 is currently priced at $3,500.
The Vuzix M400 has yet to be unveiled, but the company announced the existence of the device ahead of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. According to Vuzix, the M400 is the first headset powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon's XR1, a powerful processing platform that supports the use of on-device machine learning algorithms. Like many other leading headsets, the Vuzix M400 will be aimed at enterprise applications.
Magic Leap was long the best-kept secret of the mixed reality world. Today, the cat is out of the bag with the Magic Leap One Creator Edition. Magic Leap incorporates a suite of sensors that makes digitally created objects "spatially aware" of their surroundings – if you're trying to catch a Pokemon with your Magic Leap, best not let it duck behind the couch. Magic Leap is primarily designed for creativity, gaming and entertainment, but its powerful processing and unique operating system holds the potential for real-world business applications as well.
Magic Leap One includes an NVIDIA Parker SOC and two Denver 2.0 64-bit cores plus four ARM Cortex-A57 64-bit cores. The GPU is an NVIDIA Pascal 256 CUDA core. Magic Leap includes a 128GB storage capacity and 8GB of RAM. The Magic Leap One is currently priced at $2,295. Wanna try it for yourself? Select AT&T stores are offering a Game of Thrones-inspired experience.
Google Glass Enterprise Edition 2
Google Glass Enterprise Edition 2 is a lightweight, wearable device that looks much like an ordinary pair of glasses. It aims to streamline hands-on work by providing contextual information directly on the job site. Whether accessing training videos and instructions or directly connecting co-workers in real time, Glass can streamline common workplace processes.
Currently, Glass is only available through select partners. If you're interested in using Glass in your workplace, visit the company website. Costs vary based on software customization and training requirements.
DAQRI smart glasses are aimed at augmented reality for productivity and work applications. The device is highly mobile, with a portable compute pack that can easily be clipped to a belt, leaving users untethered. DAQRI smart glasses come with access to Worksense Standard, DAQRI's own suite of productivity apps.
Inside the device is a 3.10GHz sixth-generation Intel Core m7 processor, a 64GB solid-state drive and 5,800-mAh rechargeable lithium-ion battery. The device offers a 44-degree diagonal field of view with a resolution of 1360 x 768 and a frame rate of 90 fps.
Where is the industry heading?
With all these amazing technological strides, it can be easy to lose track of the business end of the industry. Tipatat Chennavasin, co-founder of The Venture Reality Fund, is working to finance mixed reality studios so that, when these platforms are ready for widespread adoption, there is already myriad content to explore.
"A lot of people are asking what the driver of VR or AR adoption will be," Chennavasin said. "Well, what was the driver of traditional PC adoption? It wasn't the internet or watching videos – that didn't exist at first. It was desktop publishing – Microsoft Office: PowerPoint, Word and Excel. It was this idea of being productive, and it revolutionized communication."
Chennavasin shares that expectation for mixed reality devices, which is why he launched The VR Fund along with his partners.
"We're still at the very beginning, but there are really strong indications that this is a healthy market, a healthy ecosystem," he said. "[Mixed reality studio] Owlchemy Labs, for example, made $3 million in less than a year in software revenue from VR. That shows me there is really something here."
As the industry evolves and the technology improves, Chennavasin said he wouldn't be surprised if mixed reality crossed over with other emerging technologies, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, or with internet of things applications, creating a unified, high-tech ecosystem of intelligent products. While that day might be some distance away yet, the emergence of mixed reality devices as a usable technology has the future on everyone's minds.
"Right now [we're in] a stage of experimentation, and there's definitely something here," Chennavasin said. "This is not just playing video games. People are experiencing that, absorbing what's out there and building on it. We'll get to those killer experiences and help drive mainstream adoption very quickly."
Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.