Mixed reality: definition and benefits

If you read or hear about virtual and augmented reality, another word comes up very quickly: mixed reality. What exactly is it all about and how can the technology be used profitably?

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What is Mixed Reality?

Like many terms describing new and innovative technologies, the term “Mixed Reality” is used in very different ways and is subject to a certain dynamic. At this point, we will try to bring some order into the confusion of definitions. Before we do that, though, let’s take a step back and clarify how virtual reality and augmented reality from one another – and where exactly Mixed Reality or MR comes into play.

MR, AR, VR: What are the differences between augmented, virtual and mixed reality?

Virtual reality describes the immersion in a completely digital and usually also interactive world. Users wear VR goggles that are closed all around and thus block out the outside world. The goal here is maximum immersion, i.e. complete immersion in the virtual world.

In contrast Mixed Reality Glasses transparent, so the outside world is still visible. In augmented reality, digital objects are now superimposed on reality and expand it, for example, with information panels, markers or small cartoon characters.

With Mixed Reality, at least by our definition, this extension goes a step further. Here, the virtual objects not only lie above reality like an additional layer, but interact with it. A virtual 3D object can thus lie on a real table and even roll off it onto the floor. And people can now interact with the virtual overlays as well. But how does that work?

Understanding the World - How Mixed Reality Works

Mixed Reality as described above is really only possible with very powerful glasses like the HoloLens 2 from Microsoft or the Magic Leap possible.

This is because built-in sensors have to scan the environment so that a computer inside the AR glasses can then calculate a digital and three-dimensional image of reality. This forms the basis for interactions between the digital and the real and is also referred to as “spatial mapping”.

A popular example is the so-called occlusion: In this process, a digital object is occluded by a real object. Thus, a virtual ball rolling behind a physical sofa would completely or partially “disappear”, i.e. no longer be visible – just as would be the case with a real ball. In order for the AR glasses to display this in this way, they must “understand” from the 3D model of the room that there is a sofa at this point in the room and that it interferes with the view of the ball.

Spatial boundaries such as walls can also be integrated into mixed reality, as can physical principles: After all, it would be confusing if a virtual apple did not fall to the ground when released, but flew merrily through the office.

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Another function of Mixed Reality that is becoming increasingly important, especially in times of a global pandemic, is the possibility of collaboration: In the future, you could also face your colleagues thanks to Mixed Reality – even if they are located completely elsewhere in the world. They then appear as life-size holograms acting in real time. Applications such as the collaboration software Spatial, the digital engineering tool ARES offered by us or Microsoft’s newly introduced platform Mesh make this possible.

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Of course, at ALEGER we can support you with our AR hardware and software for the conversion to a Smart Factory.

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Windows Mixed Reality

Microsoft has played a big role from the beginning when it comes to the term “Mixed Reality”. In 2017, the company and hardware partners launched Windows Mixed Reality glasses, which need to be connected to a suitable computer. Content can be played via the Windows Mixed Reality platform of the same name as well as via other providers like SteamVR.

As innovative as the name sounded at the time – it was somewhat misleading. This is because the Windows Mixed Reality glasses are actually quite classic virtual reality glasses. In the meantime, many models have disappeared from the market again, others like the HP Reverb G2 are further developed and marketed as VR glasses. Even Microsoft itself only refers to its HoloLens as mixed reality glasses.

However, the company uses a slightly different definition of mixed reality than the one we gave you above.

Microsoft's Mixed Reality Continuum

Microsoft refers to two scientists, Paul Milgram and Fumio Kishino, who first introduced the term in a 1994 publication. According to this, mixed reality is not a particularly powerful type of augmented reality as we have described it. Instead, it is the generic term for all realities, including VR, and the interplay between physical and digital content.

Mixed reality according to this understanding is a continuum, at one end of which is the real world. At the other end is a completely digital world, virtual reality. In between there are various hybrid forms, augmented reality is just one of them.

Thus, while this view is more elusive, it immediately includes future technologies that have not yet been developed.

Into the future with mixed reality glasses

Whatever the theoretical underpinnings, mixed reality has the potential to fundamentally change the way we think and work. It is important that the right equipment is available for the particular application required.

Particularly powerful models bring their own computer right along with them. In addition to the HoloLens 2 mixed reality glasses, this includes the Magic Leap in particular. It, too, places 3D objects in the previously scanned space and offers various possibilities for interaction.

Both models are ideal for working with 3D data and can be used for quality assurance, training or sales purposes. It may well be worthwhile for companies to invest here. A particularly exciting use case is Digital Engineering , below you will find an example.

Depending on the application, other mixed reality glasses are also interesting: A smaller and very light model with only 106 grams is the Nreal Light . It almost looks like sunglasses, making it much more inconspicuous. Despite its airy design, it offers simplified room tracking and can display 3D objects, but must be powered by a smartphone.

Similarly slim is the ThinkReality A3 from Lenovo . However, these mixed reality glasses also depend on support: This can be a smartphone or a PC if applications require more computing power. In addition, it is optimized for use in professional environments and offers, for example, a camera for live video transmission. Thus it is also suitable for the Remote maintenance .

Application example: Digital Engineering with the Hololens 2

Digital Engineering is the use of digital tools in the industry. This ranges from prototype construction and plant design to monitoring and increasing the efficiency of deployed systems. Mixed reality plays a major role here: Automobile manufacturer BMW, for example, already uses mixed reality in product development and uses Hololens 2 for this purpose.

Prototypes in the automotive industry are expensive because they have to be manufactured at great expense. Mixed reality simplifies the design process and saves costs by allowing engineers to make changes and adjustments directly in the 3D models. This digital CAD data can be overlaid to scale over physical objects such as a car body using Hololens 2 to test “hands-on” different design variants and assembly options. In this way, BMW was able to accelerate the development process by up to 12 months and thus reach market maturity for new products much faster.

Learn more about Digital Engineering with Augmented Reality here.

In summary, don’t be confused by the variously used definitions of mixed reality. What they all have in common is that Mixed and Augmented Reality is the next big step towards Industry 4.0. Mixed reality is already being used profitably today and its benefits will increase steadily in the future. We will be happy to advise you.

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