Tech Nerds Are Talking About ‘Mixed Reality’ A Lot So Here’s What That Is

Whether or not you’ve tried either of them, I’d wager you’d be able tell the difference between virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). Let’s clear it up anyway: VR is an experience that takes place in an entirely digital space and AR is bringing digital objects into the real world.

The distinction between the two is pretty clear and easy to define, but there’s also something called mixed reality (MR), so what the fuck is that? I got to try it out today, so let’s chat about it.

As part of their massive bi-yearly update, Microsoft is releasing a suite of MR headsets for Windows, allowing users to access features for both entertainment and work purposes.

Unlike AR and VR, the lines between what’s classified as MR are a little more blurred. While it all seems very similar to what you would naturally consider VR, Windows Mixed Reality actually allows users to work within a virtual space. You can browse the web, type up a document in Word or throw together a PowerPoint preso all within a digital space they call Cliff House.

Think of it this way, it’s like having the functionality of a Hololens inside a VR environment. That’s mixed reality from Microsoft’s perspective.

From the outside, it all looks similar to an Oculus or Vive; there’s the headset and two handheld controls you use to navigate the world. Unlike the former two, these new headsets (Dell, Lenovo, HP, ASUS and Acer have their own units) don’t require the setup of sensors to function and simply plug in to a PC or laptop via USB.

From a general standpoint, mixed reality is defined as the merging of physical and virtual worlds. I know, that just sounds like AR, right? Absolutely, but there’s a subtle difference.

According to Wikipedia, AR is “a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are “augmented” by computer-generated or extracted real-world sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data.”

In other words, you can think of AR in terms of Pokémon GO – the real world is simply overlaid with the Pokémans you’re trying to catch, but they don’t respond to what’s in the physical world in any way.

MR, as defined by Wikipedia, is “the merging of real and virtual worlds to produce new environments and visualisations where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time.” Keeping with the Pokémon GO analogy, everything’s the same as it is in AR, but the Pokémans can interact with what’s around them in the physical world.

For example, let’s say you’re trying to catch your 342nd Zubat, but it’s hanging around a tree. In AR, that tree would mean jack shit, but because this is MR, the Zubat could use that tree as cover or interact with it in some way. That’s the difference between the two.

At the end of the day, both of the examples above would probably just be referred to as AR, so it looks like Microsoft’s clear to redefine the space as they see fit. Sure, it feels like VR, but being able to interact with desktop functions in a virtual space certainly adds a new element to it.