Mixed Fortunes

What’s in a name?

That’s certainly an issue in one area of emerging technology. The thing that, not so long ago, we were all calling “augmented reality” now seems to go under a number of guises. Google brands it “immersive computing”. Microsoft has named it “mixed reality”. Others are using “hybrid reality”. About the only thing that’s certain is that no-one seems to be able to agree on what to call it.

It’s Star Trek tech: the ability to place computer-generated objects into real-world settings, a bit like the “holodecks” Trek scriptwriters used to fall back on when they’d run out of ideas for new alien baddies.

The technology has already made brief and basic forays into the domestic market: Pokemon Go seems to be a fad that’s had its time already, after a brief moment in the spotlight. Actually, it’s still number two in Apple’s chart of top grossing iPhone apps, just pipped to the number one spot by Tinder, so someone, somewhere is still playing.

For some time now, Google Cardboard has allowed us to download a simple template for a homemade virtual reality headset.

Apple is also looking to get in on the act. The iPhone 8, possibly on the slate for release in October, is rumoured to have an overhauled and upgraded camera with augmented reality features.

But all this is just nibbling at the edges.

Mixed reality (let’s nail our colours to the mast and call it that) will surely realise its true potential in the commercial sector, particularly among enterprise businesses. Partly, it’s a question of economics. Proper mixed reality is expensive: the headsets (when they reach the market) won’t be cheap — Microsoft’s much-vaunted Hololens will retail at about $3,000 (£2,300), and will require a lot of computing power to run, something beyond the reach of all but the most dedicated of gamers.

Hololens will allow headset wearers — either individually or part of a group — to have a computer-generated object in their real-world field of vision. They will be able to interact with it, manipulate it, even anchor it in position and walk round it — the possibilities for product design and demonstrations are obvious.

Microsoft has also shown how its MR and VR headsets can share the same environment: a recent demo to technology journalists saw Hololens and Acer Windows 10 VR Gear headset users interact in the same virtual world, the difference being that the Hololens users could see the VR users in the real world as well as the virtual one.

Microsoft has also announced the launch of the new Xbox One X the mystery product previously known as Project Scorpio — a 4K gaming console which, its makers say, is the most powerful ever built and is VR-capable so could support mixed reality headsets from Lenovo, Dell, Acer and HP, as well as the more expensive Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, already on the market. The new Xbox, which will retail at £449, launches in the UK on November 7 and is bound to be a surefire Christmas bestseller.

However, Copenhagen-based RealFiction have just unveiled another potential game-changer: a 64-inch “window” called DeepFrame which can take an image and enlarge it onto the custom-made glass optic to “cover” an area of several square miles.  The Danish firm chose their country’s national aquarium for the launch and staged a demonstration that allowed guests to “see” a rocket launch happening two kilometres out on the water of the Oresund. The crucial difference here is that there is no need for anyone to wear a headset, bringing immersive mixed reality to the masses rather than a single user or a small group. 

 It seems that Star Trek technology might not be so far in the future after all.