As a self-confessed futurist, I find myself waiting with both intrigue and excitement to see what augmented reality (AR) goodies Apple is poised to present later to us this year. Yes, I have been privy to some recent gossip over the last few months that Apple will venture into this upcoming domain and announce their “glasses.”

Revving the Engines With the Big Boys

Setting aside the gossip and rumors however, AR is something that the overall industry is buzzing about. But there’s an added depth to the hype that lifts its potential to a whole new level. In particular, a hybrid fusion of the best of AR and virtual reality (VR) technology has been coined mixed reality (MR) – no, I’m not making this up! You see, mixed reality is set to transform every part of our lives. And I mean everything! From the way we work to the way we educate our children, to the way we teach and practice medicine. I may have started somewhat flippantly but, seriously, this has huge potential across all industries.

So, perhaps, I should continue by explaining the difference between the two fundamental technologies. AR is the overlaying of virtual objects onto our view of the natural world, delivered via products such as Microsoft’s HoloLens; whereas VR is a computer-generated artificial world that can simulate aspects of our own world, yet it’s not real – see Oculus. The possibilities of both technologies are revving the engines of the big boys in the techno and social media universe. Forget just chasing Pokémon, the layering of a mixed world over reality is going to be hitting our screens big-time throughout the coming months. 

The Future is in Mixed Reality

The founders of Snapchat are planning to release “real-world lenses” – an AR app that will transform everyday things into interactive characters when viewed through your smartphone, taking their focus away from just the selfie and onto the street. 

The revenue potential is naturally another hot topic. Global market research and consulting firm MarketsandMarkets predicts that the global AR market will hit $117.4 billion by 2022, with the likes of Google and Facebook seeing the forthcoming MR wave as a way of exploring entirely new ad frontiers. Recently the lead Facebook VR researcher and chief Oculus scientist, Michael Abrash, laid out his vision of an MR world, saying, "Knowing what my team at Oculus Research is working on, I'd say it [the future] is very bright indeed … always on, go-everywhere, mixed reality."

Using VR as a Distraction

I’m a big fan of the way that VR can already enhance lives far beyond a mere gaming experience. For example, the technology is being used to provide hospital-bound children with an escape from their surroundings and an opportunity to come to terms with their illness and to deal with any treatment or side effects in a whole new way. Following a number of pilot studies carried out by Stanford University, doctors have come to realise the effectiveness and economically pleasing benefits of incorporating VR into their treatment programmes. 

In the case of a young burns victim in Galveston, Texas, the patient was able to immerse herself in “SnowWorld,” an icy landscape where she got to throw snow at snowmen and igloos while doctors worked on her burns, distracting her from both the procedures themselves and the pain of the burns. “I’d never heard of it so I was a little surprised,” she said. “But it distracted me from what the doctors were doing so it helped with the pain.” 

Google Glass Failed, So What’s New?

Being easy on the pocket of the healthcare system is a key reason why VR is readily being incorporated into pain management and treatment plans. And, likewise, AR is making medical strides too, helping dementia patients identify people and objects in the real world via images, text overlays and sound. Imagine combining this with the ability to re-live memories in an artificially created VR environment that triggers key events and you potentially have a mixed reality solution that could enhance the lives of millions worldwide. For me, this is where it gets really exciting! The ability to combine the best of both technologies offers a plethora of useful application opportunities for developers to sink their teeth into. 

But let’s not get too carried away here! A truly MR offering is still some years away, with both VR and AR needing to advance in order to deliver the ambitions currently defined. It’s been widely rumored, as I mentioned earlier, that Apple will be premiering AR glasses at their next showcase event – an interesting premise given that Facebook’s research team claims an always-on AR glasses solution is “at least five years away.” And with the epic failure of Google Glass to gain mass adoption and the consumer-focused need to get away from the “geekiness” factor in terms of design, it’s going to be a challenge for Apple to incorporate what’s needed to make their glasses a hit. But, if they get it right, I predict that it’s going to be as legendary for Apple as the launch of the iPhone back in 2007.

Until Next Time …

The very real potential for a full-on sensory MR experience that guides, entertains, educates and assists us is one that no technology embracer, whether developer, investor or marketer can or should ignore. It will be the eyes and ears of those who need it, instantly translating, directing and sharing. 

It will enable us to truly interact with the world around us; our personal assistant, our studio and our entertainment arena. Mixed reality will allow the gentle collision of our imaginations to fuse with the real world to create our reality – one that works and makes sense to us individually as users. It will be a gradual evolution, I predict, but one that has already begun to shake the telecoms and wearables world. 

So, this is where a mixed reality seeking Dr. G, signs off.