Mixed Reality is the New Reality
August 4, 2016 | Matt Witkamp
Like so many, my first brush with virtual reality (VR) was playing around with a Viewmaster as a kid. But I didn’t catch the VR bug until later in the 90s when I picked up a book on 3D graphics and was inspired to code my first animated 3D stereoscopic scene rendered in POV-Ray.
A frame from my first foray into creating VR experiences.
Soon other VR technologies arrived, such as VRML and the Nintendo’s Virtual Boy. These new technologies were fun to play around with, but they still weren’t that compelling.
We’ve come a very long way since those days, and it’s been fascinating to see the technology evolve. If you recall the full-face headache-inducing Virtual Boy, you’ll easily recognize its DNA in Oculus Rift.
But one of the most exciting evolutionary shifts is that of augmented reality (AR) into what we’re now calling mixed reality (MR), where the virtual world is blended with the physical world.
Microsoft’s HoloLens, for example, inserts virtual holograms into the physical space around us.
Having grown up with primitive, knuckle-dragging VR, seeing the evolved being that is mixed reality stand before me has been amazing. The first time I tried the HoloLens in person, I was hooked.
Not only was it fun to play around with—the visual fidelity, performance, and stability made the experience exceptionally compelling. It felt like a modality that could not only entertain us, but make a significant impact in our lives.
Designing in Mixed Reality
Most of my career has been spent in 2D user experience design. One of the things I quickly discovered working with the HoloLens platform was that interactions that function perfectly well in 2D could quickly fall apart in immersive 3D.
Often our team had to deconstruct commonly accepted 2D interactions and reconstruct them for 3D.
We weren’t reinventing the wheel—we were taking the wheel apart and putting it back together in a different way to succeed in a new environment.
MR is so new that there’s no interaction library of tested and successful techniques to draw on. For example, if you are designing a mobile app, you have a mental framework for it. You know how it works. You’ve seen one before. This kind of familiarity with MR simply doesn’t exist right now for the HoloLens, which is why it is so exciting to be a part of. You have to work in a kind of heightened agile mode, failing quickly and moving on.
Future Uses of MR
One of the most inspiring things about working with emerging technology is seeing possibilities come to life right in front of your eyes.
That first time I put on a HoloLens, it felt like science fiction had become science fact. In the next moment I got my bearings in this new environment and my mind started to open up to whole new ways of thinking. But it wasn’t until about a month into working with MR that I really started to grasp the potential of this new way of computing to impact the lives of users.
Surgeon using mixed reality in surgical preparation.
When I was on the team developing an application for Stanford’s School of Medicine, I saw the power of MR to help surgeons do their job better. It’s an experience I will never forget.
Technology, Meet Humanity
Mixed reality unshackles the computer and encourages it to integrate into the physical world around us in a completely new way.
Technology alone is cold and static. It’s not until we impose our humanity onto it—when we can visualize new experiences that bring value to people’s worlds—that we can truly harness the power of new technological applications. The HoloLens is just the beginning, but what a strong beginning.
I have seen the holographic light my friends, and it is glorious. Yet we must take care that we are not so dazzled by the light that we lose sight of the ways in which the technology can help people live better.