What is Mixed Reality?

All you need to know about MR

A woman wearing a mixed reality headset engages with a virtual display.

 Westend61/Getty Images

With the popularity of mobile games like Pokemon Go and devices such as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have become mainstream. But what is mixed reality (MR) and how is it different from other visual display technologies? The best way to describe it is as a blend of augmented reality and virtual reality technologies.

Mixed Reality vs. Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality

AR, VR, and MR are similar in a lot of ways, but each has distinct qualities and uses.

  • AR overlays digital objects onto the real world. The technology is in smart glasses, which overlay information on a display, such as weather forecasts or navigation. AR content is usually not anchored in space and will often move as the user turns.
  • VR makes use of a headset to immerse users in an entirely virtual environment. Users will commonly use handheld controllers to interact with digital objects. Assets within the world can also be anchored in space, though it's not a necessity.
  • MR makes use of a headset to overlay computer-generated assets on real-world environments. Those virtual objects are also anchored in space, allowing the wearer to view them from multiple angles. Assets can also be designed to react to a user’s physical gestures or a hardware controller.

Mixed Reality Headsets

MR headsets keep the wearer’s hands free to perform physical tasks. And because virtual items appear in real-world space, the technology is well-suited to working environments. For example, repair animations can be superimposed over actual machinery, showing the user how to connect parts.

Additionally, MR works well for entertainment purposes. Games can incorporate nearby objects like tables and other surfaces to create more realistic gameplay than is possible with AR. An excellent example of this is firing lasers at aliens that come through walls or searching for virtual animals hiding under desks.

Though MR technology is relatively new, several manufacturers are developing and releasing their own devices.

A man putting a Magic Leap One headset on.
 Magic Leap

Magic Leap One comprises a headset that pairs with a lightweight computer module. Digital objects project onto the headset lenses, which the wearer interacts with using handheld controllers.

Magic Leap primarily focuses on entertainment experiences such as watching a virtual TV screen or playing games that make use of the physical space.

Surgeons using Microsoft's HoloLens headsets to review digital assets in the real world.
 Microsoft

Microsoft's HoloLens is a Windows mixed reality headset that focuses primarily on industrial uses. Similar to Magic Leap One, digital assets are projected onto a transparent visor, creating the illusion of virtual objects in the real world. Wearers are then able to interact with virtual objects and displays using a variety of gestures.

What's Next for Mixed Reality?

While MR is a nascent technology, the signals from technology giants such as Qualcomm, Microsoft, and Intel are promising. All are investing heavily in MR technology, developing underlying systems and programming tools in the hope of unlocking its full potential. And when placed alongside AR and VR, it seems clear MR stands a good chance of becoming core to the next wave of computing.