There is a surge in hardware companies creating glasses for frictionless and natural way of consuming Mixed Reality content.
A quick comparative search of different terms like Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), Mixed Reality (MR) and Extended Reality (XR) shows that VR has been trending and MR and XR are well below the known term. So I thought of using this platform to spread the word about this wonderful technology and what it has in store for us.
What is Mixed Reality (MR)?
Now, let’s understand what Mixed Reality is.
Mixed Reality (MR) medium allows it’s users to view content overlaid on top of real physical world. The hardware understands the spatial characteristics of the environment and also the objects. The optics of the hardware are designed in such a way that the digital content “looks” part of the real world.
Currently MR hardware is being used mostly for enterprise use cases. But with advancement of mobile chips doing heavy image processing at an affordable cost, they will soon enter consumer market too.
This kind of content is accessed using smartphones these days. And it’s called Mobile Augmented Reality.
The big problem with Augmented Reality is that it is currently accessed via smartphone, which needs to be held in hand and do not give an immersive feeling. Mixed Reality headsets on the other hand are bulky and far away from achieving the natural optics suitable for human eyes. The amount of computing power to render the output on the optics while giving a natural feeling of being spatial is just way too much. And it becomes more complicated when the headset has to be standalone. If it’s not standalone it doesn’t serve the purpose!
Trying to list and give basic summary of different MR hardware available in market in layman terms. The article doesn’t dive deeper in specifications
Following is a list of MR hardware glasses out there in market and going to change the way we work and consume digital content in the Future. The list of hardware uses a specific technique called see through display i.e. glass based. There are MR headsets which are pass through i.e. uses camera to capture real world and project on a screen.
The sequence starts from the oldest hardware to the latest it also shows how each one of these are addressing different latent needs.
The last one is the least tech display and more of fashion accessory.
Microsoft Hololens is one of the most stable and rugged Mixed Reality headset available in market. And because of its close connect with the Windows ecosystem it’s able to provide a stable framework for integration with exisiting windows software. The hardware is available only for enterprise and it’s being targetted towards front line workers. Objective of Hololens is to provide handsfree tool for the technicians for efficient workflow. It’s a standalone device with inbuilt processing unit.
Recently launched version 2 has hand tracking and varied gestures embedded in the system giving it a natural user interface without controller. Microsoft Hololens because of its software framework is the go to choice for enterprise market. Most of the large companies are opting for Hololens as the tool to integrate in their existing process framework. This mitigates the risk of additional operational cost. That’s the beauty of Microsoft.
More about HoloLens can be found at this link.
One of the most hyped and funded startup of the decade in this domain MagicLeap started as consumer device, but later found that the market is not ready for half baked product.
Magic leap has tried to solve the ergnonomic issue with MR headsets by decoupling the processing unit from it. Interaction with digital content is possible with controller only as of now, but soon it may have hand tracking too. One of the problem with the hardware is its display technology. There is a small projector that throws light on a transluscenet film. And it has to fight the outside light entering the glass.
An ex employee of Magic Leap started this company. Making the headset look more like real glasses then a steampunk look.
The future of MR headset is to become an accessory of daily lifestyle then a big piece of hardware sitting over the head.
That’s what NReal is trying to do. The focus is more on design of the hardware and optics to make it look life just another glasses. It comes with prescription lens set too incase you have powered glasses. If you visit Nreal website the hero images looks more like making a fashion statement then a tech innovation. Which should be the purpose of these hardware.
One interesting aspect of Nreal glasses is that it can be tethered with new age smartphone for accessing the digital content and experience Mixed Reality on the go.
More about Nreal can be found at this link.
Imagine the pieces on the chess board come to life and show an animated fight when the enemy piece is killed. And a real time score card is seen in the front. That’s what TiltFive started with. Targeted towards board gamers, tilt five provides a Mixed Reality setup comprising of board, glasses and controller to play games.
It was launched as a KickStarter campaign by Jeri Ellsworth, and it got funded within 7 days of launch.
“When we started designing the Tilt Five system our focus wasn’t on the technology for technology’s sake. We wanted to provide an amazing gaming experience that blends the things you love about video games and board games. And we wanted it to be just as fun when playing solo, together with your friends, or even when you’re apart.” Jeri Ellsworth, Co-Founder & CEO
It’s being projected as a tabletop AR, that needs a mat like thing to be setup on table for using it. You may ask, whether the device will fly with a dependency on extra accessory. The beauty is that this mat provides a robust and stable foundation for anchoring the Virtual elements, which is very important during game plays. Later they might take if off, but this makes an excellent use case for Mixed Reality medium to start with. The kind of dynamism and dexterity and engagement required in table top board games is perhaps found in enterprise use case. So if this case is addressed later will be easy.
More about TiltFive can be found at this link.
Focals by North
Well these are not actually Mixed Reality glasses, but have a clear roadmap to be one. Remember Google Glass? Yes, this is it. Overcoming all the problems Google Glass had Focals address issues of being acceptable as an accessory, ability to be used by prescription glasses and overall feel comfortable. Unlike Google Glass they are as good enough as real glass to fool a passerby. This is like eliminating the tech social friction presented by other MR glasses.
The Focals are not meant for gaming or content consumption. Bit like an Apple Watch it is designed to move notifications from your phone to your sightline. And it has got a controller which is to be worn on index finger as a ring. Using this controller the menu can be navigated and different options selected.
The major drawback of this technology is tiry eyes in prolonged use. Since the display is always on the projection surface of glass, the eyes have to constantly change focus to look at the information. Am sure the company will be working towards addressing this issue.
More about Focals can be found at this link.
The first Mixed Reality Glass that’s being created outside USA. AjnaLens is a Made in India product. The idea behind the product is to create an enterprise headset that addresses need of manufacturing front line workers at a cost lower than competitors.
But more than that it’s an attempt to create industry ready next gen hardware from India.
First very few companies are working in this space and design, development and manufacturing of a hardware like this is a challenge. So basis this AjnaLens is doing wonderful job. They recently launched their ready to use headset. Since this is first version, the hardware looks bulky and not ergonomic. The form factor from images is bit uncomfortable.
The first version is called AjnaLite. The name suggests that it’s a beta product and lot more is on roadmap.
More about AjnaLens can be found at this link.
The one startup that was launched before MagicLeap and considered a strong contender for Microsoft Hololens was shut down. However, it’s making a come back. What’s interesting about Meta is that the resurgence is guided by a person who owned much famous AR platform Vuforia and other that new Meta will be used for a very specific use case. With a complete line up of hardware and software platform the come back is very much anticipated in XR ecosystem.
Interestingly Meta started as a controller free headset giving priority to hand interaction from the very beginning. The aim was quite atrocious.
While I was going to label it dead, the news of it’s come back has good vibes going around in indie developers.
So that’s all I have. Do let me know if I missed adding any MR headset here.
If this article made you knowledgeable about XR ecosystem, do spread word by clapping and sharing it.
Kumar Ahir is an independent consultant working in the field of Immersive Technologies, Product Design, Design Leadership, and Strategy. He is evangelizing Design for Immersive Technologies and UX by actively doing workshops on Design Thinking, Design for AR and VR, Prototyping for Mixed Reality technologies.
He aims to create a better Design Ecosystem for Immersive Technologies.