The concept of virtual reality (VR) has arguably been in development since the first half of the 19th Century, when Charles Wheatstone’s stereoscope presented 3D renderings, 182 years before the release of Oculus Rift. The notion of manipulating the senses into perceiving an altered state of reality is nothing new, and Wired goes so far as to say that recent developments seem ‘overdue’ when held up against humanity’s long-term flirtation with the idea. Everyone’s got an expectation of what their first VR experience will be like, with some enthralled by the prospect and others not convinced by so overpowering a device.
VR has frightening potential, and the fanfare surrounding developments in headsets is matched by desperation among developers to create applications for them. At the same time, though, it’s difficult to see its applications extending much further than the world of gaming. The complete blocking out of the world around the user makes it unsuitable for communal activity or public use, and its limitations render its current price point far too high for the casual gamer. The future for altered reality probably isn’t in VR at all, something Google knows - its Glass project might’ve been a failure, but its sticking points were anything but fundamental to the technology.
And mixed reality has been as prominent in modern popular culture as VR. Sci-fi is rife with holograms, often manipulatable, and it has long been the vision for computers to take on a less confined display - think Minority Report. Mixed reality essentially holds all of the utility of augmented reality (the kind of heads up display supposed to have transformed our lives by now) on top of the imagination of VR. Characters in the video games created will interact with the actual world in front of the wearer, rather than an entirely constructed landscape. Microsoft technical fellow Alex Kipman confusingly referred to it as ‘augmented virtuality’, and the marrying of the two is what gives mixed reality a real chance of becoming ubiquitous.
Microsoft expects 80 million mixed reality devices to be sold by 2020, a figure it revealed to the surprise of pundits at Computex. For perspective, IDC estimate that 64.8 million VR headsets will be sold by the same year, and Microsoft’s confidence in the technology gives it an incredibly influential proponent. Google’s Glass was ugly. Its shape ignored the necessity for a soft introduction of wearable tech - early users would generally rather the tech blend in, rather than have them look like an extra from a sci-fi movie.
It’s on this matter of form that some companies developing the tech seem to be hesitating - the function is already there. Microsoft’s HoloLens isn’t an aesthetic nightmare by any means, but is probably too goofy to see quick, widespread adoption; it looks a lot more like a VR headset than an a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses, for example. Style is important for wearables intended for public use, and is currently where Magic Leap - one of the US’ most exciting startups - is keeping its cards very close to its chest. Located in suburban Florida, the company may have just found the future of altered reality, and its mixed. A very detailed Wired piece exploring the company highlights the fact that investors have shovelled some $1.4 billion into the startup, including the likes of Qualcomm and Google. Alibaba led the most recent round of funding, pulling in $793.5 million in what Wired estimates could be the ‘largest ‘C’ round in Internet history.’
The buzz around Magic Leap is incredible. Proof of concept videos have shown what the technology is capable of, and its overlaying of anything from messages and presentations to video games onto reality looks spectacular. The company is yet to release any physical product, though. Seemingly committed to waiting until the technology is properly developed, Rony Abovitz and his team are yet to even offer a beta to developers, meaning backers will wait with bated breath to see how the technology actually looks come release. The online community has been sceptical of Magic Leap, and will continue to be as long as there is no hardware available - let’s just hope that its eventual arrival increases the buzz rather than stops it in its tracks. Mixed reality is the future of digital eyewear, and Magic Leap might just have the backing to bring it to the market.