Future tech

MR vs VR: why enter virtual reality when you can bring holograms into your world?

Virtual-reality technology still has years to go before it’s sophisticated enough to be widely adopted. Mixed reality, however, is another immersive technology that’s closer to functional use

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 June, 2016, 6:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 June, 2016, 6:02am

Walk up Apliu Street in Sham Shui Po, or around the cramped electronics stalls of Huangbei in Shenzhen, and it’s all about virtual reality. VR glasses – and even cases for them – are in every store. VR looks like the next big thing, but so far it’s being done on the cheap.

For now, VR is all about smartphones; insert one in the front of a big, clunky, strap-on headset such as Samsung Gear VR or Google Cardboard, then turn your head to meet the 360-degree video presented on websites like YouTube and Facebook, or various specialist apps.

Already bored of virtual reality? Microsoft says it’s all about ‘mixed reality’ now

Dedicated VR gaming headsets like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR will eventually prove genuinely groundbreaking for gaming, but they’re expensive and will take some time to cross into the mainstream.

In the meantime, there are other immersive technologies emerging that could define the future of gaming, entertainment and even communications.

From holo-phones and retinal displays to “cinematic reality” and 3D projections, a new era of tech is promised that could prove more successful than VR.

Perhaps the most hyped form of what’s termed mixed reality (MR) is from the Alibaba and Google-backed Magic Leap. (Alibaba is the Post’s parent company.)

Look on its website and the sight of a killer whale leaping up through the floor is mesmerising. This kind of video overlaid onto reality could just as easily be a user interface, which is prompting some to say that the US-based Magic Leap’s technology could replace phones, laptops and other hardware, essentially making computing a blend of the virtual and the real.

“The technology has the ability to accurately place objects and make them look like they’re in your environment,” says Karl Woolley, creative technologist at London-based visual effects company Framestore, which is collaborating with Magic Leap.

Dynamic digitised lightfield signal is the tech in question, and it will go beyond the touch screen user interface to instead create something virtual that will rely on gestures and voice. Despite there being very little detail about how it works, some think it’s already got a market value of nearly US$3.7 billion.

“Magic Leap has an immense amount of money for retinal displays … maybe we could end up with gaming in real life, and there is lots of room for surprises,” says Paul Gray, principal analyst and researcher at information analysis company IHS.

Although it’s expected to be light on hardware, Magic Leap’s entrancing vision of cinematic reality will need to involve some kind of head-mounted virtual retina display to successfully superimpose 3D graphics onto the real world.

Augmenting reality in this way is a reaction to just how difficult it is to create true holograms at impressive sizes.

“Technically the concept of a hologram is physically impossible because you need to stop a light beam at a point in space,” says Woolley, explaining that it’s only when light bounces off something that the human eye can see colour and brightness.

That hasn’t stopped some from trying to develop holographic phones, but early prototypes have placed a glass pyramid on top of the screen to create that “something” for the light to deflect off. It’s a messy solution.

“It looks like the object is spinning in the air but it’s not, it’s just being projected and reflected,” explains Woolley, describing what is a very small hologram in the palm of your hand.

Researchers at the Human Media Lab at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada have created a technology called HoloFlex that produces a small hologram without any pyramid or holo-glasses, but the resolution is blurry.

Another alternative is to put a phone into a small flat-pack box called Virtual Mobile, designed by London-based Virtual Presence, which uses a miniaturised projection technique using a near-invisible material.

Viewers download holographic content, place their phone in the unit, and watch holograms appear in front of their eyes. It’s clever, and Virtual Presence is talking it up as a new platform for advertising and even for religious organisations and political electioneering, but who wants to put their phone in a box? It’s the same problem that’s plaguing virtual reality.

There is another breakthrough technology, dynamic holography, that does away with hardware almost completely but it is so complex that smartphones are not smart enough to cope with.

Meanwhile, holography is destined to make computing a mixed experience, with table tops turned into virtual touchscreens and all kinds of digital elements overlaid onto reality.

At a recent demonstration, Microsoft showed that a plumber was able not only to give his customer advice but also to draw a virtual circle around the joint that needed tightening, using a pair of camera-equipped HoloLens headsets and a tablet.

Holoxica in Scotland has holographic displays that take computer-based 3D image and turn them into a digital hologram. Users can interact with and “touch” icons in space, and draw in mid-air.

Mitsubishi has a hologram-like display that can project 56-inch images in mid-air, which it wants to sell before the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games.

“The key difference between VR and MR is that in VR you could be placed into Game of Thrones,” says Woolley. “With MR, you could place characters from Game of Thrones into your existing environment.”

Virtual reality might be getting all of the headlines, but in the increasingly personalised digital age, mixed reality has perhaps the biggest future of all.