The immense potential of augmented/mixed reality

Immersive reality - a term that encloses Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented or Mixed Reality (AR) - has gained a lot of interest over the last years. Virtual Reality just became powerful enough to provide a realistic experience for the person wearing the headset. Augmented Reality got a popularity boost with last year's hype Pokémon Go. The hype behind VR is slowing down due to the limited set of possible applications. Augmented Reality on the other hand is just beginning to boom.

Virtual Reality immerses the user entirely into the digital world. So much that the user loses track of the physical world. Augmented Reality on the other hand shows the world as it is and augments it with digital artefacts. AR has the potential of creating a much bigger impact than VR due to the fact that the user could wear it the entire day. AR gives you instant access to digital information about your surroundings, your contacts and any other functionality that you currently use your smartphone for. We firmly believe that augmented reality could change the way we interact with computers and make smartphones redundant.

Augmented reality applications are interesting for multiple reasons. First of all they allow handsfree interaction. Although current headsets are not at this point yet, you could control an AR application by just looking at the digital artefact in question and giving speech commands. This is especially convenient in situations where users are limited in their free use of hands. Secondly, augmented reality applications offer a more natural interface to three dimensional digital data. Current devices have two dimensional screens. But we live in a three dimensional world. Some domains including 3D modelling, building plan design and product development would benefit from a more naturally interaction with three dimensional digital objects within our physical world. Thirdly, current apps do not fully embrace the context in which the user is at that point. The same mobile apps are available in our living room and in in the kitchen and when hiking a mountain trail. Modern Augmented Reality devices such as the Microsoft Hololens continuously scan the three dimensional world around us. The device thus learns about the physical world and knows where we are. It could thus show cooking recipes when we are in our kitchen, a hiking trail guide when we are at the trail's starting point, and today's meeting appointments in our office. This helps to focus on the contextually relevant digital experiences and avoids missing out on digital experiences that could help us within our current context.

Current attempts at augmented reality show a lot of potential, but are still quite immature. Looking through your camera to see Pokémons or putting the IKEA catalogue on the floor to see how furniture would fit your interior is nice, but flawed. The immersiveness suffers when the camera quality is low. Also, without knowing the spatial layout of the physical room, digital objects will always placed on top of it and not in it. When you walk behind a wall, you will still see the Pokémon through it. Google Glass failed as a consumer device because almost nobody wanted to be seen with it publicly. It also provided little more than a hands free interface to a small 2D interface in the corner of your peripheral vision. The Microsoft Hololens (and the Magic Leap - if it ever launches) brings amazing new capabilities to augmented reality. It continuously maps the physical world so that virtual objects can become part of the physical world. A Microsoft demo, for example, shows a female character in a detective game sit in one of your actual chairs. Even worse than the Google Glass though, it is a heavy device that you would not wear publicly. The field of view in which the holograms are projected is also still limited and the Holograms are not as opaque as you would want them to be. Finally, although the Hololens excels in indoor environments, it fails in dark indoor environments and cannot map the outdoor world.

When we look at the future, we can see the technology of Microsoft Hololens improving until a point where people will wear it publicly as ordinary glasses or contact lenses. Then, it will have the potential to make mobile devices obsolete. You can already benefit from the technology today in your business. Pokémon Go was immensely popular despite its technological infancy. The Google Glass has recently been reintroduced for productivity purposes in automation environments. We can see the Microsoft Hololens being used in similar and more advanced ways to improve productivity in businesses.