Welcome to the inaugural edition of "Get Real": a monthly roundup of the biggest stories about virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality, that go to show why it's time to pay attention to this area of tech. Let's get real.

Mixed Reality Goes Beyond Gaming and Enters the Workforce

The biggest story we’re looking at this month -- and, perhaps, the one that has us the most excited -- comes with the kickoff of MWC Barcelona: the event formerly known as Mobile World Congress, where the latest products, services, and other "innovations" in the mobile technology sector are unveiled and discussed by various companies and industry leaders.

Julia_Schwarz-1000x667Source: Microsoft

Once upon a time, the idea of "mobile" may have strictly concerned phones. But now, the obsessed-over topics of discussion have expanded to include the next generation of infrastructure to support the growing number of people using wireless connectivity (read: 5G), as well as the growing number of wireless devices that rely on it to function most effectively.

Those devices include cordless XR -- an all-encompassing term used to describe these various forms of digital reality -- headsets, which require a wireless connection to run the programs and user experiences for which they were built -- be it a game, a three-dimensional film, or educational content.

During a Sunday night press event, Microsoft unveiled one such device: the HoloLens 2 mixed reality headset, which was designed not for consumers, but strictly for professional and educational use cases.

HoloLens2_RemoteAssist_woman-1000x562Source: Microsoft

The HoloLens 2 -- the second edition of the 2016 inaugural version of the headset -- looks to be an asset in industrial, medical, and educational environments, largely to aid in learning or assembly processes.

Case in point: Dieter Bohn of The Verge's hands-on experience with the HoloLens 2 involved affixing bolts to an ATV that was missing them. The headset superimposed holographic directional symbols (like arrows) instructions onto the real-life environment around Bohn, which guided him through the process.

Out of the highlights of the experience, two things stood out the most from Bohn's account of the experience: the first being how natural the process seemed, and the second, "playing the part of a worker because that’s who the HoloLens 2 is exclusively designed for -- workers, not consumers."

HoloLens2_Guides_Motorcycle-1000x667Source: Microsoft

The potential (and hopeful) use cases for the HoloLens 2 align with the growing business case for XR: to use immersive technology to teach, or create other virtual experiences that have shown to improve empathy and efficiency among teams.

As Steve of DrashVR told me at Oculus Connect in October, "You can cram a lot more information that's 'learning by accident' or 'learning by play' when it's in VR. That's the feedback I've heard first-hand: that people can learn more from 10 minutes of VR than in a semester of classes."

There's one other thing to note, however: The HoloLens 2's $3,500 price tag, at which it's now available to preorder. According to Bohn, Microsoft is intentionally selling the units only to enterprise organizations who wish to distribute the headsets among employees.

If this initial distribution is successful -- and sees additional demand -- there's a potential for the hardware to scale and, therefore, see a decreasing unit price, making it more accessible to smaller businesses. 

But regardless of the price point, the reality -- no pun intended -- remains that XR is permeating the business side of use cases at an increasing rate. Where a $3,500 mixed reality headset might not be a feasible purchase for some organization, there's the $199 standalone Oculus Go VR headset, which can replicate some of the desired outcomes: education and empathy, to name a couple.

"VR has the potential to be an incredible tool for connecting the most curious, passionate and collaborative individuals together," HubSpot Academy Senior Manager Christopher LoDolce recently noted. "The trifecta of learning is knowledge transfer -- typically teacher in front of the classroom -- an application like homework or something learned at work, and then, discussion. If you are able to simulate an in-person experience with VR and incorporate the trifecta, it would break down barriers."

Apple Hires a Marketing Boss for Its Augmented Reality (AR) Division

Apple appointed Frank Casanova its first-ever head of AR marketing earlier this month, signaling what Bloomberg's Mark Gurman says could be a growing "importance of the technology to the company’s future." 

Casanova's move into this role was preceded by the departure of Avi Bar-Zeev -- credited as the inventor of the HoloLens headset -- who was reportedly working on Apple's somewhat surreptitious plans for Apple's AR headset. 

The news also arrives amid talk of Apple shifting its focus from hardware to services -- which some have blamed on missed expectations on iPhone sales -- and a rumored press event on March 25, where the company is expected to make a services-related announcement. 

With these recent personnel and leadership changes, how soon the world could see new AR technology from Apple -- especially in the form of such hardware as a headset -- is difficult to predict, though it doesn't appear likely to be making its debut any time soon. Read full story >>

The Mirrorworld Is Coming

XR is made (arguably, eerily) better with the help of artificial intelligence (AI): machine learning technology that has been taught, somehow, to know where there are windows in the environment where you're using a headset, and where to superimpose holographic whales swimming outside your building.

That's the experience described by "Mythbusters" star Adam Savage to Wired of using Magic Leap AR glasses for the first time. 

“I turned it on and I could hear a whale, but I couldn’t see it. I’m looking around my office for it. And then it swims by my windows -- on the outside of my building," Savage recounted for the publication. "So the glasses scanned my room and it knew that my windows were portals and it rendered the whale as if it were swimming down my street."

 

What Savage is recounting is known to some as the mirrorworld: a future phenomenon in which every fragment of the real world -- streets, buildings, individual rooms, and more -- can be replicated into XR in a way that allows our surrounding environments to be fully integrated with the virtual or augmented experience.

But even though it will be quite some time before the mirrorworld becomes -- if you'll excuse the potential overuse of the word -- a reality, the groundwork is already in place. Kevin Kelly explains where we've already seen glimpses of it, such as through Google Earth and AR-enabled games like Pokémon Go, and what needs to happen next before we can truly live in a mirrorworld. Read full story >>

Why One Tech Veteran Is Especially Excited About VR This Year

Earlier this month, Nate Mitchell -- a co-founder and head of product at VR hardware company Oculus, which was acquired by Facebook in 2014 -- penned a blog post titled, "Why I’m Excited for VR in 2019."

A big factor behind Mitchell's enthusiasm is the perhaps imminent release of the Oculus Quest -- the latest headset from the company, which boasts more realistic-than-ever imagery and improved freedom of movement that creates an even more immersive experience.

I had a chance to try the Quest at Oculus Connect last October, and while I tend to be a bit skeptical when it comes to any technology that's been described as "better than ever" -- not to mention, someone who reliably ends up with motion sickness after using VR -- wearing this particular headset was a particularly positive experience. 

At the time, I wrote that using the Quest for a game called Superhot felt, well, not so game-like -- and more like I could actually walk around the environment portrayed, duck for cover, and hide when my enemies where coming for me -- so much that I was sweating by the time I was done with the demo.

Perhaps these experiences lend themselves to Mitchell crediting the Quest as something that can "jumpstart the next chapter for VR."

"Oculus Quest is just another milestone on our long journey to bring VR to everyone," he wrote, pointing the the company's ambitious goals for XR use metrics. "Our commitment to research continues—and it’s accelerating." Read full story >>

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