Mixed reality and augmented reality are the same thing to
some people, and some sections of the media have also made this semantic
decision. However, to companies like Microsoft and various others, there is a
very precise definition of mixed reality and it has some important features that
separate it from augmented reality.
To properly understand what mixed reality is, we need to break down the phrase, and go back a bit. Mixed reality is a halfway point between virtual reality and augmented reality.
Virtual reality is a user interface within an entirely computer-generated environment. Users interact with objects within the artificial world, but, if they move around a lot, they could potentially walk into a real-life wall and break their nose (a rather extreme example, perhaps, but a legitimate worry!).
Augmented reality lays computer-generated objects over a real-world environment, and the objects seems to interact with the real world, jumping over obstacles, and racing around real spaces and swerving around table legs and so on.
However, sudden movements can misalign the computer-generated objects and the real-world background, and have the objects racing on fresh air, going through table legs and avoiding empty spaces!
With mixed reality, the programming and software is designed to apply physics engines to the objects’ interactions with the real environment, giving them realistic reactions and minutely aligned positioning. This means that objects appear to genuinely be on top of the real-world surface and react appropriately when ‘dropped’ bouncing a bit before they settle authentically on the real ground.
Augmented reality hardware is designed, at present, to display notifications on the lens or screen of the device being used to see the augmented objects, but mixed reality aims to use real world features to bring your notifications a fresh, quirky feel. For example, if you are in the living room, and a Facebook notification comes up, generally this will appear on the lens of the glasses you are wearing, or on the screen of the tablet or smartphone you are using – with mixed reality, the notification might pop up on a television screen, or balance itself on the back of a sofa, or even in ways that it is impossible to speculate because the technology has not yet been imagined – but something eye-catching and amusing, that does not entirely break your immersion in your augmented world.
Mixed reality also has authentic depth perception, so that objects can be nearer to or further away from the viewer – in augmented reality, most objects are presented front and centre, with quite limited movement, and glitches occurring at the extremes of the object’s range.
Finally, mixed reality allows computer-generated objects to be obscured by real life objects – for example, you can ‘hide’ something behind a piece of furniture, or the curtain, and then ‘find’ them by moving over to look behind the real-world item.Thus, at present, the difference between mixed reality and augmented reality can be seen to be quite small and finely defined – but those distinctions are important, and will become more clear cut as the technology advances even more.