The virtual and physical worlds seem to be in a constant state of collision. It’s a rare moment when some sort of digital content isn’t actively woven into the physical world. But now that disconnecting from virtual life has become increasingly difficult — even more so than actually connecting to it — these virtual and physical realms of existence appear to be inseparable.
As we continue to test the waters of the metaverse, that network of shared virtual worlds, the virtual and physical may begin to mingle and coalesce even more, creating a mixed reality that could fundamentally alter how people work, play and socialize with one another.
What Is Mixed Reality?
What Is Mixed Reality?
While virtual reality immerses users in a simulated three-dimensional environment, and augmented reality layers elements of the virtual world upon real-world surroundings, mixed reality combines the two to create an experience where users can interact with both the virtual and physical worlds more seamlessly.
The same headsets we use now to access the virtual world are, and will likely continue to be, used to access mixed reality experiences. Though there will be some tweaks, like enhanced video passthrough capabilities, which essentially allows video to be layered over the physical world in front of you, much of mixed reality will be defined by applications that can effectively blend physical surroundings — like offices and retail stores — with virtual settings created by the likes of Meta, Microsoft and others.
Mixed Reality Use Cases
Today, mixed reality is being implemented in a wide range of settings. Mixed reality applications are being used to teach workers how to assemble doors for airplanes, to increase compassion among students by letting them see the world through the eyes of someone who was unhoused, and to turn living rooms into escape rooms.
Mixed Reality Use Cases
- Retail: Mixed reality can help shoppers get a better idea of products they’d like to buy.
- Sports: Mixed reality can enhance competitors’ experience by adding virtual elements to the physical spaces in which they are playing.
- Workplaces: Companies can engage employees more by using mixed reality for onboarding, training and other events.
In Retail, Mixed Reality Is Creating a Better Shopping Experience
In retail, mixed reality is creating a more engaging experience for shoppers.
VNTANA, a Los Angeles-based company that creates 3D and augmented reality infrastructure platforms for brands like Diesel and Adidas, is helping companies create an online shopping experience that gives shoppers a better sense of what they’re buying.
The company uses algorithms to optimize a brand’s 3D designs of merchandise, like running shoes or handbags, so they can be scaled and used anywhere from Facebook to mobile websites to other virtual platforms like digital showrooms and the metaverse, Ashley Crowder, CEO and co-founder, told Built In. The aim is to help retail brands create a shopping experience that’s capable of tapping the immersive qualities of augmented and mixed realities.
Sectors like the automotive industry have long used 3D modeling for design. But on the consumer side, 3D modeling is becoming increasingly popular, giving shoppers a clearer understanding of a specific product online, Crowder said. Three-dimensional content, she added, has shown to increase conversion rate and average cart size while reducing returns and unlocking a new revenue stream.
“I think the big paradigm shift that’s happened in the past five years is just the fact that web browsers can support immersive and 3D content,” Crowder said. “So yes, you can be fully immersed on a headset, but even people just with their phone can have this more immersive experience.”
A Mixed Reality for Sports: Competing in the Virtual and Physical Worlds
According to a report from ABI Research, a London-based technology intelligence company, 3D content is playing a crucial role in the leadup to the metaverse and the “merging of the real and virtual worlds.”
Today, these increasingly immersive experiences are also being tested in organized sports by companies like Arcadia.tv, a mixed reality competitive sport platform that allows users to compete across both the virtual and physical worlds.
“It’s not only a video game world — it’s not limited by reality,” Chris Olimpo, Arcadia’s CEO and co-founder, told Built In. “It takes the best of both and you can have these athletic gamers — we call them Arcadia athletes — running around this volume [an extended reality arena], using holograms and doing crazy things that you’ve never seen before.”
“It’s not only a video game world — it’s not limited by reality.”
By blending these two worlds together, thanks to the large roller hockey rink his company is currently using to stage obstacle course-like competitions for players donning virtual reality headsets, Olimpo and his team have not only developed a mixed reality sports experience, they’ve also created a way for people to leave their homes and join one another in a new, altered social, yet virtual, environment.
“We really want to push social play — people coming together in the same place to play the game,” Olimpo said.
And it’s a large space, one where participants can run without fear of running into walls, while breaking a sweat, having fun and experiencing a technology that offers a true mix of both the virtual and physical realms of existence.
Using Mixed Reality to Better Engage Employees
While mixed reality will be game changing for many areas in our lives — and the metaverse as a whole — the workplace will likely experience the greatest impact in the near term. It’s also where mixed reality will likely find its footing.
Andrew Hawken, CEO and co-founder at Mesmerise, a virtual and augmented reality platform that’s used for meetings, conferences, events and training, said his company is helping companies migrate to the metaverse. These enterprises are making this leap with virtual reality in hopes of engaging their workforce — many of whom have never been to the office — whether through onboarding, training or other company events. According to Hawken, training or hybrid work rooted in virtual reality is helping workers experience what it’s like to have their work community reunited.
“I think there will be scenarios where these headsets just become the norm alongside your phone or laptop.”
But much of the work being conducted outside the physical realm utilizes virtual reality, though Hawken believes the next generation of headsets will enable mixed reality, “and that will become very powerful,” he said.
A much anticipated mixed reality headset from Apple is reportedly slated for release in 2023 and Meta released its Meta Quest Pro headset last month. As more mixed reality tools, like applications that allow workers to collaborate with one another in the metaverse, and headsets become available, this blend of the digital and physical may become more commonplace in offices and other work settings.
“I think it’s going to be a big part of everyone’s working lives,” Hawken said. “I think there will be scenarios where these headsets just become the norm alongside your phone or laptop.”
What Role Will Mixed Reality Play in Our Lives?
While virtual, augmented and mixed realities will be more widely adopted and integrated into our work and everyday lives, it’s still unclear just how big a role they’ll play and in exactly what ways.
When it comes to the metaverse, mixed reality applications and hardware are poised to have an impact. Winston Robson, CEO and Founder of WeMeta, an analytics tool for managing digital land in the metaverse, sees mixed reality offering a range of experiences in the metaverse today, from work to one-off events, though there’s a lingering problem around the creation of engaging, compelling content.
And hardware remains an issue.
“Use cases can sometimes be a challenge because you’re going to be wearing this thing on your face all the time,” Olimpo said. “And that’s a hard thing to fathom.”
This is one of the big reasons why Olimpo believes sports is the best outlet for mixed reality applications. Many athletes have something strapped to their head during the course of a game and for a relatively short period of time. But not only that, it’s also the physical activity inherent in Arcadia that makes these mixed reality competitions so valuable.
“My big dream here is that one day parents are going to tell their kids, ‘Why don’t you go outside and play video games already?’”
“I do think the main benefit on our side is getting society out of their chairs, getting people moving, getting people wanting to go to a shared space and build a true community,” Olimpo said. “Right now, I feel like we have a bunch of fake communities, whether it be on Discord or on social media or wherever it is. The way we’re developing our technology is dividing us more and more and more.”
He envisions a day when technology once again brings people together, much like movie theaters did before most people had their own version of a movie theater in their living room.
But what would it take to get there?
As low-cost mixed reality headsets and applications become more ubiquitous, Olimpo hopes a day comes where kids are able to run down to the neighborhood park with headsets in hand and start playing with their friends in a mix of both the physical and virtual worlds around them.
“My big dream here is that one day parents are going to tell their kids, ‘Why don’t you go outside and play video games already?’” Olimpo said.