Mixed Reality Is The Next Tech Buzzword

Microsoft is leading the charge, though the term is actually decades old

Jun 01, 2017 at 5:51 PM ET

Tech buzzwords are often here today, gone tomorrow, so get ready to get hit with yet another: mixed reality. Companies like Microsoft are using the term to sell new headsets that blend the digital and physical world together.

Mixed reality is basically just a blanket term for both virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) together. Microsoft dubs its entire line of new headsets with the term — but they’re mostly just VR gear that promises to be cheaper than competing headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

Microsoft refuses to use the individual terms VR and AR because the creator of the HoloLens believes those terms are obsolete. AR doesn’t require a headset to see an experience. It’s just a visual superimposed on a screen onto a real-time view of the physical world. VR is a computer-generated 3-D experience that lives within a computer.

“These are not separate concepts. There are just labels for different point in the mixed reality continuum,” Alex Kipman, HoloLens creator, said in during the unveiling of the new headsets. “This is why, to simplify things, we call all of it ‘Windows Mixed Reality.’”

An actual mixed reality headset would let you see the real world while getting lost in a digital world displayed on the screen. It would borrow components from both AR and VR. However, most of Microsoft’s mixed reality headsets only show experiences within the headset’s display. People who have demoed the headsets said it was just like using any VR headset.

The only headset that Microsoft has that truly uses mixed reality is the HoloLens, which was first unveiled in 2015. The HoloLens displays visuals on the screen and also overlays virtual objects in the real world that users can interact with.

The term “mixed reality” has actually been around since 1994 when engineers Paul Milgram and Fumio Kishino introduced it in their research paper “A Taxonomy of Mixed Reality Visual Displays,” which detailed the concept of experiences going past displays and including environmental input, spatial sound, and location. Microsoft thinks of the term as the “evolution in human, computer, and environment interaction and unlocks possibilities that before now were restricted to our imaginations.”

Microsoft is not the only company using the blanket term of mixed reality, or MR. Magic Leap — the mysterious company that has gotten a lot of press but has yet to release a prototype — and the secretive Wonder, have also been using MR to promote their headsets. Companies such as Facebook and Google have also started experimenting with the term, and publications such as The Verge, Engadget, and Wired have also repeated the term in their headlines.

If Microsoft is right about the terms VR and AR becoming obsolete, then rest assured that within the next five years, you’ll see a lot of gadgets, smartphones, and apps being promoted with MR capabilities.