Being part of one of the biggest emerging markets of all time is incredibly exciting. You see innovation every single day on various aspects of the Industry. One innovation that has come to the forefront recently is MR or ‘Mixed Reality’. Mixed Reality is when virtual objects or scenes can be placed over reality. An example would be your own table in front of you with an empty fruit bowl on it. Inside that fruit bowl, the headset you are wearing overlays a lifelike looking virtual apple inside it. You effectively see the real world and a virtual one combined, hence the name ‘Mixed’ reality.
Thanks to the release of the Pico 4 and the Quest Pro headsets, gone are the days of black & white grainy passthrough modes which did little to fire the imagination around the potential uses of this technology.
Colour MR passthrough looks great but it does raise the question, what control mechanism is the best for this new way of viewing our world?
A virtual apple in front of you breaks the illusion if you reach to pick it up and your hand goes right through it and you can’t feel it as you would a real apple. This is why I believe haptics need to be an essential component when combined with MR. Bearing this in mind, you would see that hand tracking which is being built into most newly released headsets might not be the best option. Not only is this control mechanism in its infancy and still not that convincing but it provides no haptic feedback at all. Standard controllers are slowly evolving, they have haptic motors built in so will definitely provide that sensation of touching something. But you are already holding a lump of plastic before you touch the apple, so again it is quite illusion breaking. Modern controllers are providing full finger tracking so it feels like a halfway house between hand tracking and full VR gloves.
So VR Gloves? Is that the answer? Well Yes and No. In their current form haptic gloves are incredibly expensive with some requiring external clunky power units to run them. Examples of companies in this space are, HaptiX, Manus, Senseglove and BHaptics. BHaptics might be the closest to a consumer product yet with their Tactglove costing around $300. Much much cheaper than other solutions that are in the $2000-$3000 ballpark, although generally aimed at the Enterprise market. Until the price and size of these gloves come down, controllers in my opinion still win as the control solution. Their dominance will be challenged in the future as new materials offer more immersion in haptic glove technology and we minaturise the haptics further so ‘clunkiness’ is a thing of the past. Haptic gloves will need to rely on gestures and a floating UI to tap in MR mode to navigate the experience that you are mixing in with reality. Slightly immersion breaking but kind of cool. Until then controllers with full finger tracking and strong haptic motors will still be the primary control mechanism used in XR but their days are limited.
All companies in the space need to keep innovating until one method rules them all, it would be a shame to have to have multiple solutions for different XR hardware, that’s not the MR future that I want to be a part of.