There was a time where virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality were all part of science fiction and a glimpse into a possible future. We watched holograms relaying messages, special displays offering virtual information in a futuristic world, targeted advertising on floating billboards, and cartoon characters in virtual reality headsets. Over the past decade, we’ve seen the VR headsets come to life and into our homes with surprising ease and acceptance. AR has also crept into our daily lives and consumer habits without us paying too much attention. But there is so much scope for AR and MR to go further and enrich our lives to greater extents.
Before we can fully appreciate the ways that AR that transform the world of the workplace, gaming, and other industries, we need to better understand what we are dealing with. What are AR, VR, and MR? How are they different from each other and how do these differences allow AR to become beneficial in our future tech? What makes AR so special?
Let’s start with AR, as that is our main focus here and the current leader in this type of technology. At its core, AR works by layering, or superimposing, a digital display onto your current surroundings. We have seen this a lot in Sci-Fi films where characters use special screens or helmets to see an extra layer to their reality. At the time, concepts like Tony Stark’s Iron Man helmet were high-tech and unobtainable. After all, Stark was a billionaire genius that took tech in bold new directions. We watched in awe as his helmet gave him extra information as he flew and wished we could have similar.
Well, we now can. AR has entered out would through our smartphone and other AR-enabled headsets. It isn’t quite the same as Iron Man, although the military uses something similar. These mobile devices use GPS and markers to create an alternative view and an enhanced picture of the world in front of us. We see this with apps that let us try on clothes, in mobile gaming, and also in navigation tools. Workplaces can also use AR in training devices to help trainees learn more about systems and machines in a safe, effective manner.
There was a point where it looked as though we’d be wearing AR-enabled glasses by now. Google Glass was meant to be the hot new wearable that brought this tech to a hands-free system. But the world wasn’t quite ready for it and the glasses were discontinued in 2015. However, Apple picked up the baton and we might soon see their own version of the system in stores.
Virtual reality is the one that we are a little more familiar with. Both the concept and the tech have been with us for longer than that of AR. The basic idea here is that we can dive into a whole new world that is completely detached from reality. There isn’t the shared imagery of our real world and the digital world superimposed on top. Instead, everything we see is artificial and projected through the headset. This concept has been part of popular culture for years, with character putting on helmets and visors to enter somewhere new. The Matrix and Ready Player One gave us a taste of what VR could do at its peak. Even the Simpsons brought virtual pool to Moe’s dank bar in their future.
The reality right now isn’t too far from some of the depictions in film and television. We just don’t have headsets that are quite as big or so many wires coming out of our hands and chests. The Oculus Rift VR system is the leader in the pack right now and has become an accessible tool that anyone can use. With time, these devices can only become more user-friendly and smarter in terms of the interactions via hand motions and other gestures.
The application of VR headsets has also gone from the world of escapism and gaming into practical applications. Designers can create simulations and models where trainees can explore without the threat of injury or damage. This is the case with the Virtalis and BAE Systems 3D virtual models of Astute-class submarines. Elsewhere, they provide educational opportunities in classrooms and museums.
Finally, we have mixed reality. This is a different concept that you don’t hear so much about. VR is the beloved eldest child that we’re all used to. AR is the cool overachiever middle child we’ve come to embrace with time. MR, on the other hand, is a one that could be a star when it’s a little older. The idea here is that we will be able to interact with virtual objects projected out of our headsets. It takes AR to a new level by projecting the data into our real world and providing a more interactive element.
This could have major implications in the world of work. Right now, there are high hopes for AR headsets where workers can see extra images and data to help them handle the real object in front of them. With MR, those workers would be able to manipulate the virtual image before working on the real thing. For example, mechanics working on a complex machine could get the schematics from their virtual manual, tear into it to figure out their next move, then apply their workings to the real machine.
This sort of technology is limited right now. The HoloLens is the best-known item that works along these lines. There are companies taking advantage of these opportunities, but more work is needed.
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