IDF 2016: Merged Reality vs Virtual Reality vs Augmented Reality

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter

At IDF 2016, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich revealed Project Alloy, a ‘merged reality’ headset powered by Intel processors and RealSense 3D cameras. But what is merged reality and how does it compare to existing virtual reality and augmented reality experiences?

What is Virtual Reality?

Virtual Reality (VR) is a simulated digital world that you experience by wearing a head-mounted display that blocks out all external sights and sounds. The close proximity of the display to your eyes, together with immersive stereoscopic visuals and spatial audio, enable you to experience a virtual world as if you were really there.

Turn your head in the real world and your view shifts accordingly in the virtual one, whether you’re seated in the cockpit of an Eve: Valkyrie spaceship or clinging to the side of a sheer cliff face in Crytek’s The Climb.

The Climb by Crytek
VR ‘s digital worlds let you try things you wouldn’t ordinarily do, like rock climbing,

You can currently experience VR in a variety of different ways, ranging from a cheap Google Cardboard headset to a $599 Oculus Rift plugged into a VR-ready PC system. In terms of quality, you get what you pay for.

What is Augmented Reality?

Augmented Reality (AR), on the other hand, isn’t about full immersion into a VR world. Instead, AR shows you a composite view of the physical world with real-time digital data layered on top of it. This information might be GPS-enabled directions, video, text pop-ups or, most famously, wild Pokémon.

In fact, Pokémon Go has allowed many people to understand what AR is and to play around with it. Using a smartphone is just the first step. Google Glass might not have captured the public’s imagination when it launched in 2013, but augmented reality eyewear or HUDs are arguably the way forward for the technology.

Pokemon Go
Pokémon Go shows how augmented reality works, populating the real world with digital creatures.

We’re already seeing products that take advantage of AR — the Recon Jet eyewear displays live fitness data for cyclists and runners, while the M300 Smart Glasses from Vuzix allow its wearers to see schematics, directions, maintenance instructions or to scan products without having to reach for a separate computing device.

How does Merged Reality compare?

All of which brings us to the Merged Reality (MR) experience promised by Project Alloy. Think of it as a blend of VR and AR technologies. As Intel CEO Brian Krzanich explained at IDF 2016, a merged reality is where “things from the real world can come into the virtual world and vice-versa.”

Wearing a Project Alloy all-in-one headset during the IDF 2016 keynote speech, Senior Technical Marketing Engineer Craig Raymond showed how a virtual block of gold, located in a virtual lab, could be sculpted with a real hand. No controllers are needed, thanks to dual Intel RealSense modules in the HMD, full depth sensing and five finger tracking.

Gold sculpting with Project Alloy
Project Alloy uses dual RealSense cameras to bring physical objects (like your hands) into a virtual environment.

It’s a different proposition to Microsoft’s ‘mixed reality’ efforts with HoloLens, which augment a view of the physical world with holographic digital objects and effects. That said, Project Alloy will also support Windows Holographic mixed reality apps, giving you the ability to play Minecraft on your coffee table or turn any room into a futuristic virtual office.

Each of the three technologies here has its place. Dedicated virtual reality systems like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive will continue to provide unparalleled gaming experiences. Smartphones and smart glasses will remain ideal for using basic augmented reality apps. Merged reality and mixed reality will sit somewhere between the two.

All of them, however, have one thing in common: they redefine the computing experience.

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