Demystifying augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality

Saturday, August 26th, 2017

Virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and their cousin, mixed reality (MR), are hot buzzwords that we all have likely heard before. The origins of these technology systems can be traced back to 1962 when Mort Heilig introduced Sensorama. An arcade-style cabinet with a 3D display, Sensorama was designed to replicate the sensation of riding a motorcycle down the streets of Brooklyn. Viewers would have a 3D view of the streets while having the wind blow in their faces while simultaneously feeling the vibrations of the motorcycle seat and even experiencing the smells of the city.

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) computer scientist, Ivan Sutherland, is known to be the godfather of virtual reality displays. In 1968, he created the Sword of Damocles, the first VR headset. Together with his colleagues at MIT, he began the first virtual headset experiments. Also, a ragtag band of programmers in Silicon Valley in 1985 began exploring the concept of virtual reality from a tiny cottage in Palo Alto. The actual term virtual reality was not coined until 1987 by Jaron Lanier (an American computer philosopher and computer scientist).

But, what is virtual reality? Coldfusion, a YouTube channel, describes VR as a computer-generated simulation or replacement of one’s environment. For example, when you put on a headset, it will block your worldview and substitute in a digital world that is designed to fool your senses. From the point of view of the brain, you are in another place. This is called mental teleportation - an absolutely revolutionary technology for the late 1960's, yet it failed to gain momentum earlier.

Attention from media outlets like Scientific American and Wired could hardly attract the masses as the technology was not widely spread, it was too costly, and the audience was a tad too niche. However, today the concept of this technology has broadened to much more complex scenarios. Also, it is readily available. Users are now able to interact with fictional characters in their own living rooms, follow the progress of their loved ones, or just turn the environment into the greatest workstation imaginable

Make-it-yourself Google Cardboard VR sets, Gear VR headsets for Samsung Galaxy phones, the HTC VIVE, or even more powerful and more immersive systems like the Oculus Rift are all readily available technological gadgets for the consumer market. Currently, VR is extremely relevant to gamers, 3D artists, architects, real estate agents, teachers, students, and even astronauts.

Wired Senior Editor Peter Rubin talked about virtual reality as being only a piece to a puzzle. Augmented reality and, eventually, mixed reality will complete this technology. While VR puts users in an artificial environment, AR and MR bring the artificial to their natural surroundings. AR can be as simple as having a visual overlay on the digital perceived world. Its purpose is to enhance the real world with a set of "magical" virtual objects in it. When a person’s environment is supplemented/augmented with computer-generated images that are usually motion tracked, that is AR.

If you have played Pokémon GO when user numbers were higher, or if you have ever used Snapchat lens face filters; then you have already used primitive forms of AR. The term augmented reality is actually attributed to a former Boeing Researcher, Thomas Caudell, dating back to 1990.

Additionally, when a visual overlay becomes a virtual object that one can interact with, that is mixed reality. MR is basically what Microsoft HoloLens and the upcoming Ultra Secret of Magic Leap have been working on.

Although generally affordable, mixed reality is still a ways away. It is a much more complex and is a much more data-intensive endeavor than virtual reality as it requires a higher amount of processing power. But, it promises the best blend of reality and illusion that the world could ask for.

Matthew Wren, lead developer at Origin Development and IT, discussed his project with VR at one of Chicago’s tech meetups on Thursday, August 24 at FinTank. He has actually broached the issue of whether VR sets strain the eyes. He affirmed that reading text with VR does dry up the eyes, and one may experience a "hollow effect’" with high resolution images or concentric circles. Major companies in Chicago, like Walmart and Instacart, are pushing this technology. Technologists present at this event discussed its myriad potentials.

If you are interested in AR or VR, there are several tools available online. For VR-based content creation, software packages like Medium, Tilt Brush, Blocks, Photoshop (for graphics), and Gimp are available. For application development, there is either Unity, which is both user-friendly and has a widespread community, or Unreal Engine, which is more powerful and has a steeper learning curve. Recommended IDEs (Integrated Development Environments) include Eclipse (Android), Xcode (iOS), and Visual Studio (MSFT/cross-platform). For more information, the company will have a demonstration the last Tuesday of September in downtown Chicago.