In the furniture store of the future you’ll be able to pick up and hurl out of sight any three-seater lounge, bureau, or dining table that doesn’t quite meet your expectations.
The store owner may even do it for you.
Because in the future we’ll visit the store by video conference, and we’ll interact with the owner, the sales staff, and all the goods on the showroom floor as if they existed in an alternate reality. This will be a reality where we have the power to manipulate huge objects with our fingers, where we can instantly call up community reviews of merchandise directly in front of our eyes, where we can sit in our living rooms and be virtually escorted around an entire showroom by a computer-generated robot.
It’ll all be made possible by mixed reality, an emerging technology that projects computer-generated images into your real world and lets them interact with your surroundings. And with you.
What Is Mixed Reality?
Without getting into the deeper recesses of philosophy, reality is becoming fluid. The two most common forms of alternate realities currently finding their way into the video conferencing world are augmented reality and virtual reality.
Virtual reality (VR) has been with us the longest, and represents the immersive technologies that drop us into an entirely synthetic world. These are the realities created by donning VR Goggles and the like, and they let us interact with a replica real-world environment or with purely computer-generated spaces.
Augmented reality (AR) is pretty much the opposite. Here the computer-generated content is laid over a view of the world around us, in the way that Pokemon are able to parade around our living rooms if you view that living room through your smartphone display.
Mixed reality has more in common with AR than VR, but its projected images have a power both those others lack–its computer-generated creations aren’t limited to illusion, they can actually interact with the real world.
It’s like a visual manifestation of the Internet of Things and the smart objects that form a bridge between the bricks and mortar world and the internet.
Who Is Working With Mixed Reality?
Florida startup Magic Leap is currently impressing high-end investors like Google with its lifelike mixed reality projections that can roam around your real world after you don a special headset.
At their cutest they look like this:
If Magic Leap and its mixed reality competitors–such as Microsoft and its holographic computing Hololens goggles, and Google’s attempt to revive Google Glass for the workplace–get their acts together we could soon have little robot tour guides on hand to take us through the showroom offerings of remotely accessed businesses.
You’d either be a shopper with a virtual avatar interacting with and reporting back on real-world objects, or a salesperson interacting with a virtual customer and directing them to the smart objects on your floor.
If that’s hard to envisage at the minute, don’t worry. It’ll become clearer when we’re all wearing the same mixed reality glasses.
Video Conferencing with Mixed Reality
In the future, with a common set of protocols linking the world of mixed reality video calling, the way WebRTC is currently linking all the major web browsers, getting into a virtual chat will be as easy as Skyping granny.
While it’s likely the promised wearable tech will have calling functionality built-in, early versions may rely on casting a connection from your computer or phone to a pair of glasses the same way smartphone video calls can currently be cast to larger screens.
Either way, you’ll be able to dial in to one of two different kind of showrooms. It could be a real-world showroom, perhaps one where you’ll be greeted by a real person who is on hand to take your questions while you and your smart-object sensitive companion measure the softness of a cushion, access the production history of a couch, or view chairs in a range of colors. You’d effectively be viewing the real world through a filter, much the same way as those Pokemon chasers hold their phones in front of their faces.
Or it could be a virtual showroom, perhaps like an animated catalog with the sales staff reduced to disembodied voices while you hurl around fully rendered bedroom sets as if they were mere throw pillows, and drag them off your screen and project them into your actual living room to observe how their size looks, or how they look with your wall color.
The only drawback to shopping with mixed reality is that it’s going to make the real world look very boring once you take off your glasses.