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What's the difference between Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality?

The term "Windows Mixed Reality" is exciting and different, but it's a challenging thing to define in simple terms to someone who isn't already paying close attention to what Microsoft is doing with this technology. We already have Virtual Reality, a system where you put a headset on and replace the real world with a totally different one. It's clear by seeing Microsoft's work with Hololens that Mixed Reality and Virtual Reality aren't the same thing. What about Augmented Reality, though? We're starting to hear more about Augmented Reality from Apple and Google as this thing you use to add things to the real world by looking through a display, and that sounds an awful lot like Hololens without the helmet.

Here's where Mixed Reality and Augmented Reality differ, and why that difference is important to define sooner rather than later.

Augment my reality

On a high level, Augmented Reality is what happens when you take the real world and add something to it. The most common example right now is the game Pokemon Go, where you can look through your camera and see Pokemon in the real world. As far as the game is concerned, that creature is standing three feet in front of you and hopping around. As far as the real world is concerned, there's nothing there at all unless you are looking at your phone and seeing this additional thing in the world.

Augmented Reality can be more than gaming, as we've seen so thoroughly demonstrated by Microsoft Hololens. Due to the current limitations in technology, most forms of Augmented Reality happen through a phone with the aid of your camera. Future speculation leads many to believe the next step for Augmented Reality is a set of normal-ish glasses that you simply wear all the time and enjoy the Augmented Reality world all around you. This would make it so your apps would always be around you instead of just in your pocket, which would fundamentally change the way we use computers.

The thing that makes Augmented Reality special comes down to a single word. Presence. With Virtual Reality, you are fully consumed in the "other" place you are taken to. Augmented Reality offers the potential for very interactive experiences, but still tethered to the real world. You're not likely to accidentally swing your body around and knock into someone like you would in Virtual Reality, because you're still able to see that person even though you're doing something else.

Are we all going to be walking around wearing Augmented Reality glasses and totally doing away with the other screens in our lives? Probably not for a long time, but Augmented Reality as it exists now paints a fun picture for that as a possible future.

Defining Mixed Reality

Microsoft isn't the first to use the term Mixed Reality, but they are the first to brand it. Windows Mixed Reality, according to Microsoft, is a spectrum of experiences. Anything Microsoft makes with the intent of altering your reality, from fully occlusive headsets that obscure your vision entirely to transparent headsets like Hololens, are a form of Windows Mixed Reality. This is confusing right now, because Microsoft only has products in the two ends of the spectrum. There's the Virtual Reality-style headsets to compete with HTC Vive or PlayStation VR, and the Augmented Reality-style headset we know as Hololens. For Microsoft, there's a lot of space in between that hasn't yet been explored. All of that space in between, as well as the far ends of the spectrum, are all Mixed Reality as far as Microsoft is concerned.

Microsoft knows the headsets that come next are going to be more than just Virtual or Augmented Reality.

This strategy has two key benefits for Microsoft. For starters, it forces developers who build apps that work with Mixed Reality headsets to say they support Windows Mixed Reality instead of just calling out SteamVR. This extra retail space is important from a marketing perspective, since there are likely to be SteamVR apps that don't always play well with Windows Mixed Reality headsets thanks to being originally built for the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift.

The second reason is just as important, and far less cynical. Microsoft knows the headsets that come next from every manufacturer are going to be more than just Virtual or Augmented Reality. The HTC Vive, for example, already has a camera on the front for peering into the real world when gaming. That camera isn't high enough quality for any serious Augmented Reality apps to do anything with, but the space is already there in the headset design for something more than just a strictly Virtual Reality experience. Microsoft is planning for the next phase in both Augmented and Virtual reality by calling them both the same thing, and that's important. It means the company is planning to work with this technology for a much longer period of time than initially speculated, and it means what we have right now could be considered wildly outdated in the not-so-distant future.

Elements of similarity

Windows Mixed Reality is Augmented Reality, but it's also a lot more. Microsoft is casting a wide net and hoping to be a big part of whatever comes next. The work done so far on Hololens and the other headsets show Microsoft is eager to solve a lot of the problems that stop these technologies from being mainstream experiences we all share, which is important work to be doing right now.

That doesn't mean we're all going to be walking around with Windows Mixed Reality glasses next month, but it does mean Microsoft is an important part of how these technologies will be used in the future.

Russell is a tech nerd who chases the best of everything, from phones to game consoles to laptops and everything glowing or beeping. He's the Managing Editor of gaming content for Mobile Nations and can be found contributing to all of the Mobile Nations sites. Reach out on Twitter!

24 Comments
  • Ultimately none. "Mixed Reality" is just a fancy proprietary term that ABSOLUTELY NOBODY is using, except Microsoft, for both VR and AR, that Microsoft is desperately trying to impose, because they missed the Mobile revolution boat, and are missing every other revolution boat since then (2007, with the introduction of the iPhone), fading to irrelevance in the consumer space (and every other space btw). They are trying to convince customers and devs that they are FIRST at something and the originators of the new "big thing" and now seeing that this area is starting to get occupied by adequate companies like Google and Apple, Microsoft is pathetically playing with semantics and implying through bloggers like Windows Central, that actually MR is a "platform" or some bs. Just like they told what exactly is UWP and then when started to fail big time, they tried to play with semantics and subliminally telling everyone, through bloggers (Dan R.?) that UWP is actually not what we thought and they initially told us it is, but is rather every app (legacy non scalable Win32 program) that is in the Windows Store and other bs like that. Pathetic. No, Microsoft, "Mixed Reality" is used only by you, and noone cares. People are using Virtual Reality and also Augmented Reality of the respective experience by adeuqate providers of such, like Apple, Google and others, that have surpassed your retarded ignorance once again. Better luck next time, with your new invented marketing term. (you can try once again with "Pocket PC", "lapability" etc.)
  • > missing every other revolution boat since then They didn't miss "cloud."  They're right in the thick of things there. But only there.
  • You sure about that? Where is Azure in the enterprise, compared to AWS? Also just sit down and watch how Google will surpass them like its nothing.
  • LOL...Trust me Google have no chance to overtake Microsoft in enterprise sector especially in enterprise cloud (Azure, Office 365, Dynamics CRM..) at least for the next 50 years. You know anything about Microsoft Active Directory? It is now considered as the standard enterprise user management platform. Even AWS is struggling to fight with Azure. Azure marks an 191% YOY growth when compared to AWS. Moreover, well reputed companies (including Facebook->Office365) are already into Microsoft Ecosystem such that even Apple gave up on enterprise market long back. Microsoft only lost in Mobile OS Sector.
  • They have a pretty big presence and it's a very profitable and growing business.
  • What a load of puke..
  • Irrespective of how frustrated I was or am with Microsoft's Mobile efforts, your comment about forcing the use of term MR is wrong. Mixed Reality is pretty much an academic term. Microsoft didn't coin it. Mixed Reality has always been used to define the mix of both AR and VR and MS is not trying to impose anything by using this term. Clearly their platform is MR. And the crazy part is they were trying to impose the term "holographic" which academically means something very different than what Windows Holographic was doing. Now, they have corrected it.
  • Yeah? Who else is calling VR and AR, "Mixed Reality" other than Microsoft and Microsoft related blogs?
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mixed_reality
  • Yea, nailed it. The terms mean whatever is meant by those using it, short of finding an industry standard consensus. It is not as some suggested, a proprietary term. It seems to me to be the term MS wants to put forward to try and differentiate themselves from the AR and VR of others. More so the AR side, as MR and AR imply some real, some not, in some combination. VR pretty much implies all virtual.The Wiki article doesn't do much better differentiating, but does add more confusion with multiple other terms.  
  • As the article points out Microsoft are also thinking longer term than just how the market exists today. Microsoft believes that there will be convergence between augmented reality and virtual reality devices. The long term brand they are establishing is with this convergence in mind. It's a little bit like Netflix calling themselves Netflix even when all they were doing was delivering DVDs by mail. If Microsoft called their standard "Windows Virtual Reality" not only would it be confusing because Oculus and Vive are incompatible Windows virtual reality products, but it would also be a name that would eventually have to be changed once augmented and virtual reality start to converge.
  • Why does it matter if Windows Mixed Reality brand  is only used by Microsoft? I think they want to own the brand name and not just become something generic like virtual reality. Same reason they were calling Hololens holograms. They don't want to just be generic augmented reality. When I say Mixed Reality you know I'm talking about a Microsoft-compatible Windows product. That's good branding. If I say virtual reality you don't know if I'm talking about something for a smartphone, a playstation, or a ridiculously expensive proprietary contraption from some fledgling PC company. Mixed Reality is an easily identifiable  standard, something that is essential for success in the PC market. Without standards products fail in the world of PCs. Unless you are Apple, and sometimes even if you are Apple,  it is very hard to make a proprietary technology succeed. That's why I think Facebook and Oculus are in serious trouble right now with Microsoft, Valve, and all the PC OEMs  establishing a VR standard around Windows Mixed Reality. I would not want to be the guy who decided to spend billions of dollars on Oculus right now.  
  • You seem to care a lot, otherwise why would you type out this long, rambling, nonsensical rant? Microsfot branded this platform as Mixed Reality because they lost the smartphone war? That makes absolutely no sense. In case you forget, the platform was called Windows Holographic before the rebranding. It could be that the new name makes more sense than that. No, that couldn't be it's way too logical!
  • AR and VR... no doubt, very different. Need no explaination. VR and MR, might look similar but...
    VR doesn't let user interact with their environment. You are either sitting (e.g. PSVR), or bump into things if you don't clean your room before walking around. (e.g. HTC Vive.) MR by definition, can / should enable user to interact with their environment even if you are not seeing the real world (by rendering placeholders, e.g 3d table, avatar).
  • NO. Nokia had the Augmented Reality thing going early on with Windows Phones in such apps as CityLens---which I STILL miss.  And nobody has come close to this app as far as usefulness in the mobile arena.
  • And it is dead. If it was worth it would not be. End of story.
  • That's too much of an abbreviation.
  • So everything Microsoft has killed off wasn't worth it? The Band, Zune, W10M?
  • Answer your own question
  • Didn't Yelp do this years before Nokia?
  • Never got the hang of that Superman AR app they had.
  • We need to make the jump to Star Wars-type holographics where headsets and handsets aren't needed anymore...
  • Get to work, then. No one is stopping you from inventing the tech to do it. :)
  • I am don't see any difference between augmented reality and mixed reality. There is a difference between the virtual reality and the augmented one. But I still can not understand the difference of the MR and AR. Maybe it depends on where it is used.