Edge of Innovation

These mixed reality headsets promise new ways to see the world

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter

If 2016 was the year of virtual reality, then 2017 could well be the year of merged or mixed reality. Sitting half-way between VR and AR, not as immersive but equally as impressive, mixed reality goggles promise a blend of both digital worlds. They could help us see things in whole new ways.

This year will see the launch of several mixed reality headsets from the likes of Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, and Lenovo. Not only will they be more affordable than current VR headgear (manufacturers are aiming for $300), they will work with 7th generation Intel Core-powered Windows 10 PCs via the Windows Mixed Reality platform (formerly known as Windows Holographic).

We saw Lenovo’s prototype MR headset at CES 2017, equipped with a pair of 1440 x 1440 OLED displays and inside-out, six degrees-of-freedom tracking. ‘Inside-out’ tracking uses a camera or sensors built into the front of the device to monitor its position in a room. It negates the need for external tracking hardware for room-scale experiences.

In March, Microsoft announced that it would be shipping Windows Mixed Reality Development Edition headsets from Acer. Like Lenovo’s head-mounted display, Acer’s hardware features two 1440 x 1440 displays, a 90Hz refresh rate, built-in audio out/microphone support plus HDMI 2.0 and USB 3.0 connectivity.

A more affordable HoloLens

Mixed reality headsets from other Microsoft partners have yet to break cover. But if the Acer kit is any indication, they could represent a more affordable version of Microsoft’s HoloLens, the device that arguably started us down this mixed reality path in the first place.

HoloLens started shipping last year but it’s hardly a mass market device. The Development Edition will set you back a cool £2719, putting it well beyond the reach of most consumers. But developers are already building some cool apps for mixed reality and, beyond gaming, the technology could well have a big role to play in education.

Microsoft has already inked a partnership with Pearson to integrate 3D and mixed reality into secondary and university level curriculums.

Virtual reality HMDs like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR might have hogged the technology limelight so far, but the prospects for mixed reality look bright.

Future Windows Mixed Reality headsets will also be joined by Intel’s Project Alloy, a merged reality device that features an integrated 7th generation Intel Core processor and RealSense depth-sensing camera technology. It too takes the wearer into a world where reality and virtual reality intertwine, enabling all sorts of new experiences from augmented offices to room-scale, duck-behind-the-sofa gaming.

Magic Leap’s secrecy-shrouded Light Field hardware also promises to upgrade our view of the world with digital elements. What little we do know comes from interviews with people who’ve supposedly used it.

Making the Magic Leap

As Techcrunch reported, basketball star Andre Iguodala “gave some interesting insight into what a Magic Leap interface might look like, saying that in one demonstration he stuck his hand out and a character appeared in his hand that acted as a digital assistant for the device.”

Avegant is also chasing the mixed reality dream. Like Magic Leap, its forthcoming headgear also uses ‘Light Field’ technology, which it describes as “a new mixed reality platform that enables the visualization of objects at multiple focal planes. [This] delivers ultra-high quality, detailed virtual objects that appear to be right at your fingertips, resulting in a more realistic and interactive experience.”

Ultimately, you might not even need to wear a headset to experience mixed reality in action. Microsoft recently announced a Mixed Reality viewer for Windows 10, enabling webcams to see virtual objects created in its new Paint3D app.

While augmented reality has failed to take off, Avegant CEO Joerg Tewes believes that “mixed reality will change the way we teach, learn, work and play.” Boil it down to the basics and these mixed reality devices are all trying to reinvent a technology that dates back to the 1920s — the screen.

What started with bulky, black and white cathode ray tubes has now evolved into lightweight, net-connected, super-thin, ultra high definition OLED panels. But give it ten years and we might all be wearing mixed reality headsets, marvelling at the absurdity of any display that doesn’t have depth to it.

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