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Mixed reviews for mixed reality

A host of new mixed reality headsets has everyone hooked. Will the technology finally make a breakthrough?

Recently, a hospital in London used an Apple Vision Pro during an operation on the spine of a patient.
Recently, a hospital in London used an Apple Vision Pro during an operation on the spine of a patient. (Apple)

When it comes to mixed reality, there’s a sense of déjà vu—surely we have been here before? But technology is all about constant change, and at any point we could be on the cusp of a product or tech breaking through to become era-defining. Is that going to happen with mixed reality in 2024?

A quick recap: unlike virtual reality, mixed reality overlays digital content on to your real-world surroundings—there’s also XR, or extended reality, which is a catch-all for virtual, augmented and mixed reality. We have a hero product at the moment, the new Apple Vision Pro— a mixed-reality headset that is being described as a breakthrough device, outstripping competitors in terms of technical competency and providing the most fully immersive experience we have ever seen. Meanwhile, Meta Quest 3, the mixed reality headset from Meta, is doing good business among gamers, the only cohort that has, till now, shown a high appetite for mixed reality.

Apple is using its marketing might to position mixed-reality experience as “spatial computing”, but with no compelling use cases, is it mainly a solution seeking a problem; a product predicated on hope?

The state of the art

While one Big Tech player is kicking off its mixed-reality journey, its rival Microsoft is powering down in the domain. The company has announced it is depreciating Windows Mixed Reality, the virtual reality platform for Windows PCs. It’s been a while since hardware makers released any new VR headsets for Windows Mixed Reality, which is a shame since some, like the HP Reverb, were pretty good, affordable devices to explore the space. HoloLens 3 (the company’s mixed-reality headset) has also been reportedly cancelled. The recent turbulent past of HoloLens makes it clear that mixed reality at Microsoft has reached a dead end.

It’s remarkable how the company went all in on virtual reality and mixed reality less than a decade ago and has already given up on the venture. That the company is also uninterested in exploring virtual reality for its Xbox gaming portfolio is bewildering, but not unsound.

Until mixed-reality capabilities—or a subset of it—comes to a pair of regular glasses, it’d be hard to gain any traction outside education or such specific niches. That’s why Meta, apart from its portfolio of VR headsets, is experimenting with Ray-Ban—as mainstream as “regular glasses” can get—with a device that aims to balance form and function. It’s wild that with the Ray-Ban Meta smart glasses, the company seems to be better at putting out cooler hardware than Apple.

The conundrum

The enterprise sector has seen some mixed reality use cases. American Construction tech company Trimble used Microsoft HoloLens to empower front-line workers in the construction and manufacturing industry as well as for building information modelling to enhance planning and project management.

An HTC Vive Focus 3 VR headset was sent to the International Space Station to help astronauts with mental health conditions associated with living in an isolated, confined environments for long periods of time. And recently, a hospital in London had a nurse use an Apple Vision Pro during an operation on the spine of a patient to help the team navigate the surgery.

The consumer space, however, is a different ball game. “The launch of Meta Quest 2 in 2020 provided a breakthrough and helped popularise XR, but the market slowed after its initial success. No other XR headset brands managed similar success,” says Karn Chauhan, senior analyst at global technology market research firm Counterpoint Research.

Analysts believe that brands have launched headsets infrequently due to a lack of innovative hardware and software offerings. And, unlike most modern computing trends, the mixed-reality paradigm tethers you to an indoor environment with limited battery life.

A group of researchers at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab explored the psychological impacts of living life in pass-through video. This technology—even as high-tech as the one in the Apple Vision Pro—doesn’t replicate human vision and may lead to experiencing an asymmetry in communication and social isolation.

The mixed-reality industry is dominated by devices from Meta—primarily used for gaming—which accounts for nearly 50% of the market, according to Counterpoint Research. There are just not enough “killer apps” to entice people with varied interests.

Some tech upstarts are exploring newer device forms, pocket-sized gadgets, and have introduced AI-powered devices like Humane or Rabbit to make everyday usage easier or better. These are essential AI assistant devices to find information, get things done, and capture information around you easier or better. It’s not yet clear if these too will appeal to consumers outside the tech bubble, considering much of the capabilities will trickle down to smartphones and smartwatches soon enough.

What lies ahead

There is no doubt that the Vision Pro could give mixed reality its best chance yet. This momentum may benefit other players like Meta and Sony, which launched the Sony PSVR2 in 2023. Counterpoint Research too forecasts a significant rebound in 2024 with XR headset shipments projected for strong double-digit annual growth.

There have been reports that Samsung is working on a XR/VR headset in partnership with Google to rival Apple Vision Pro. Considering XR was viewed by many as a potential successor to smartphones, all companies want to keep a hand in. Apple, with its trillions of dollars, may just provide the content push the mixed reality space needs.

Abhishek Baxi is a technology journalist and digital consultant.

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