Holo-Moments — “Reality Discourse: Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed”

photography by Jennifer Lopez

Hello world! I’m Jenna, the youngest of the Holonauts. I’m a Designer on our team focused on thinking about user interactions in a mixed reality space. Before we can get into MR though, I wanted to get us thinking about all the realities available to us right now. 2016 was a big year for Reality. With the release of the HTC Vive, Pokémon GO, and Microsoft HoloLens, experiences that were previously considered science fiction were rapidly becoming science fact. This post will serve to explain what all these “R’s are” (pun intended), how they’re unique, and what their strengths are. At the end of each segment is my advice for the best ways to experience that specific Reality.

Physical Reality (PR)

First let’s look at our primary reality which I’ll be referring to as our “Physical Reality.”

Physical Reality is the reality we experience most moments of our lives. It’s how things exist in the world based on our perceptions. For a simplified example, let’s think about the reality of popcorn. First, we use our eyes to see the golden popcorn and understand its visual properties. As we scoop it into our hands, we feel the warmth and texture of the popcorn. Our noses smell the buttery aroma and our tongue tastes the salty flavor, all the while our ears hear the crunch as we chew. Based on all these senses, we construct the idea of what popcorn is. (For those familiar with Schrödinger’s cat, we can argue that there is no true reality of popcorn but we’ll save that for a future post.)

Best Ways to Experience PR: Your Senses

Virtual Reality (VR)
Virtual Reality is a digital simulation of reality outside of our normal Physical Reality and it’s captured through headsets and peripheral devices. Since you’re experiencing it based on the senses your headset can handle, VR is largely constructed based on your sight and hearing. There is also an emerging school of thought that we can’t truly experience VR. Since the virtual world is made up of bytes and Tron technology doesn’t exist, our atoms can never be in a “Virtual World.” In this school of thought, VR is simply an extreme version of Mixed Reality, or MR (which we’ll cover later).

Regardless of VR’s existential crisis, we can all agree that the strength of Virtual Reality is how it immerses users by shutting them off from the outside world and transporting them to an entirely new one. Detaching users from their environment creates the idea of presence which fools their minds into believing they’re somewhere else. Lastly (and this will become more relevant as we get into MR) VR can only understand virtual objects and environments and takes in no context of the outside world.

Best Ways to Experience VR: HTC Vive, Google Daydream, Google Cardboard

Augmented Reality (AR)

Augmented Reality is the concept of overlaying digital information into your Physical Reality without any context. A simple example would be Google Glass showing a clock in the corner of your view; it essentially just augments your current reality without integrating into it. If you think of VR as taking users as far away from Physical Reality as possible, AR is the exact opposite by grounding them in it. With the advent of Pokémon GO and Snapchat filters, mobile phones are becoming a huge platform for AR, thus making it the most accessible Reality outside your Physical Reality.

Best Ways to Experience AR: Pokémon GO, Snapchat, Vurforia

Mixed Reality (MR)

Mixed Reality as you may guess, is the blend between Physical, Virtual, and Augmented Reality. VR can only integrate digital objects in digital environments, while AR can only overlay digital objects superficially in physical environments. MR, however, can understand your world and place digital objects into it with context. This means a digital ball can rest on your desk and if it falls off it will bounce on the ground in front of you. In VR, the ground would need to be digital for the ball to bounce, and in AR the ball would be bouncing in the air in front of you. MR achieves this spatial understanding through a series of sensors that create invisible digital meshes of your environment which digital objects can collide with.

To go one level deeper, AR and VR can also be thought of as existing within the Mixed Reality spectrum. If you think of MR as a dial, you can turn it one way to achieve VR and the other way for AR. As MR matures this dial will become integrated into our everyday lives, allowing us to complete utilitarian tasks in AR or experience other worlds in VR.

Best Ways to Experience MR: Microsoft Hololens, Google Tango

I’ll leave you all with a short TED talk from the HoloLens inventor, Alex Kipman, about our realities and MR’s role in them.

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