We’ve all been to trade shows with booth demonstrations where people are wearing bulky goggles, pointing and waving their arms in the air, and interacting with the computer-generated reality playing on their goggles’ view screens.
These computer-generated “realities” have evolved into three discrete versions, each with its own use cases:
- Virtual Reality (VR)
- Augmented Reality (AR)
- Mixed Reality (MR)
Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion about what these technologies really are and how they differ from one another. The best way to explain them is to define the three types of digital reality, introduce some of the use cases, and identify some of the major hardware and software players in the industry.
This is the first in a series of posts reviewing ongoing developments in both hardware and software, with a primary focus on business applications.
Virtual reality (VR) is most commonly associated with immersive computer games in which an entire virtual world has been created—complete with scenery, buildings, tools, weapons, and players that have the ability to gain strength or powers to help win the game.
Most software titles are multi-user games, with a first-person shooter character assigned to the headset user; this user has the ability to join an online team and work with them to defeat an enemy team of like-minded, VR-headset-equipped users. Communities of game developers and players put in time and effort to maintain and expand these gaming platforms.
Beyond gaming, there are several practical applications that are in the early stages of development.
VR headsets fall into two categories: tethered and untethered. Tethered headsets have a cable linked to a computer, leveraging the processing power of a desktop CPU while the headset technology focuses on the display screen, sound, and spatial orientation. The three dominant industry players in VR hardware are:
These three manufacturers, with price points in the $400 to $800 range, focus on creating a completely immersive experience with high-end graphics and sound, low-latency movement tracking systems (so that the virtual scenes change in response to any head/body movement with no time delay), and hand controllers that add to the realism of being “inside the game.”
In the untethered category, cheaper headsets ($50 to $150 range) leverage smartphones as their processors; Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream View are two examples. Due to the order-of-magnitude lower price relative to the tethered versions, the functionality and precision of the untethered headsets is significantly reduced.
Augmented reality (AR) involves the real world as part of the visual presentation, except that it has a computer-based overlay that adds to (augments) the information that the viewer sees. A good example is the smartphone-based game “Pokémon GO,” which has virtual collectible objects that are “pinned” to physical locations via GPS. If a player is close to one of these GPS locations, the object will appear on the phone’s screen while the real world is viewed through the camera lens.
AR can leverage the smartphone’s ability to be a sensing/presentation device, so the barrier to using an application, from a hardware perspective, is much lower than for a tethered headset.
However, the limitations of integrating the real with the virtual arise from the limitations of the phone or tablet itself; information capture from the real world is two-dimensional (i.e., a “flat” image or video stream captured by the camera). While there is real-world object recognition and location determination, and a resulting graphic overlay that augments or replaces the real-world image, there is no true integration of the real and the virtual; the virtual content merely remains an information overlay.
That said, the ability to pull out a smartphone, point it at an object such as a storefront or restaurant, and be presented with relevant information (e.g., today’s sales, specials, or discount coupons) will have real value for consumers and retailers alike. Augmented reality will also be useful in field maintenance and manufacturing, especially in knowledge-intensive environments.
Mixed reality (MR) is a term that was coined by Microsoft to help differentiate their HoloLens technology from digital VR and AR visual spaces. Sometimes called hybrid reality, MR is a visualization platform in which the virtual and the real combine to create an integrated, interactive space. Physical and digital objects coexist and interact in real time.
To achieve this physical/digital visual integration, three-dimensional real-world sensing has to capture and process not only width and height, but also depth. This requires real-time triangulation, similar to eyesight, whereby two points of view (two eyes or two cameras) provide stereoscopic information for object sizing and placement.
With multiple visual and auditory sensors, built-in computers, and network communications capabilities, these products are aligned with the “working world,” offering real-time visualization platforms for business use. Both of the above manufacturers are open to and are encouraging such development of higher-end applications of visual data and integration with the real world.
Examples of MR projects designed for business use include:
- ThyssenKrupp – elevator servicing, preventive maintenance, allowing technicians to visualize and identify problems with elevators ahead of a job, and allowing remote, hands-free access to technical and expert information when on site;
- Trimble – collaboration across the design-build-operate life cycle of buildings for architects, engineers, and construction workers;
- Meemim – a municipal utilities management/utilities locator platform that leverages GIS (Geographic Information System) to show underground utilities infrastructure complete with supporting information, knowledge management integration, and collaboration tools.
There are three forms of digital reality technology:
- virtual reality (VR), which creates complete immersive experiences;
- augmented reality (AR), which leverages cameras technology found in typical smartphones and tablets to present information overlays on top of physical objects in the real world; and
- mixed reality (MR), which combines virtual and real-world information and is both integrated and interactive.
Each type of digital reality has its advantages and limitations, but they all continue to develop at an accelerating pace on both the hardware and software fronts. In the next article, we will go into more detail about the business use cases in order to define what type of visualization technology is best suited to various applications. Stay tuned!