Future of mixed reality: How augmented and virtual worlds will collide
A primer on the amazing possibilities of mixed reality, augmented reality, and virtual reality technology.
New and exciting realities are now just a few screens away. The wildest dreams of science fiction writers are slowly seeping their way into our current day and age. Many people are familiar with virtual reality (VR). You put on some kind of headset and you’re whisked into an all-encompassing world of sound and sight. VR’s close cousin, augmented reality (AR), comes in a few different forms – overlaid blocks of text and information, sometimes cartoonish images and games that let you interact with the world around you. Both of these types of tech have earned their namesake, but what about when you combine the two of them?
The border between these digital worlds is already beginning to break down. Mixed reality (MR)is the intersection of both AR and VR. Right now the biggest player in the mixed reality space is Microsoft, which is leading the way with its Hololens headset. In order to learn more about MR, we need to look a little deeper at both augmented and virtual realities.
A Primer on Different Digital Realities
So much is happening in the world of digital realities that it can become puzzling to try and draw a distinction between VR, AR, and MR. But each one of these realities can be quickly explained:
Virtual reality (VR) immerses a user in a digital environment like a video game.
Augmented reality (AR) places digital objects over a real-world view.
Mixed reality (MR) overlays and anchors virtual things in a real-world environment.
For VR, a computer generates the virtual environment that users then explore and interact with. Special hand controllers help to enhance and integrate the body into the entire virtual experience. An ideal virtual world will be completely cut off from the outside visual view, along with noise-canceling headphones.
In an augmented reality, users interact with the real world while virtual content is added to the screen. Think of the quickly viral video game Pokemon Go or some Snapchat features that add digital avatars to the world around you. Most of the current AR is experienced through smartphones. There has been a mixed reaction to AR glasses, and no clear leader has emerged in that space yet – especially after Google’s failed Google Glass experiment.
You can also access virtual worlds through 360-degree video, which is also considered as another form of VR. If for example, you wear a Google Cardboard, you’ll be able to view any type of 360 video with your headset.
You must wear a specialized VR headset to experience any kind of virtual reality. Most headsets are connected to a computer or gaming console. Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR are some of the more advanced and most popular devices in the space. Other affordable options include the Google Cardboard. These types of standalone VR headsets work in tandem with a headset.
Mixed Reality On the Scene
The most recent development in reality technologies has given us a few forms of mixed reality. One type of MR is the ability to not only overlay objects on the real world but interact with them as well. This is a kind of advanced type of AR. Another interesting form of MR takes its cue from a completely immersed virtual environment where the real world is blocked out. At first, it sounds like just plain virtual reality. But in this instance, the virtual environment that you see is tethered to and overlaps the real world environment. Here’s an example of how this works --
Mixed reality fuses layered objects into the real world with an immersive digital world, allowing you to do things not possible in a strictly AR or VR digital environment. The cutting-edge paradigm shift into MR has been made possible with the Microsoft Hololens - a headset that as the name would suggest, allows its users to overlay holograms from virtual worlds on top of regular old reality. Essentially, it creates the feeling of being present within a virtual environment.
This type of intersection between the real and virtual gives us an entirely new space that we can interact and innovate inside of. We’ll be unearthing a whole new expanse of possibilities as the technology grows.
New Mediums of Experience
If we’re to take a page from Marshall McLuhan, mid 20th-century media theorist, our new mediums of technology will begin to radically alter our perceptions of ourselves and reality regardless of the content. A famous McLuhan quote puts it simply:
“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”
Virtual and mixed realities will be no different and will completely change our way of doing things and viewing our world. Look no further than actually trying to explain and differentiate between these realities. It will become more difficult throughout the years as these once novel technologies will be completely integrated into our lives. No one thinks much about having a supercomputer in their pocket anymore. It’s become a normal mode of existence. AR, VR and the junction point of mixed reality is the next logical step.
Reality is almost becoming gamified. One day surgeons should be able to overlay x-ray or ultrasound images over a patient while they operate on them. Designers and artists will be able to collaborate with another from miles away and project an imagined idea into a real-life space. Drones traversing the sky will instantly relay quantifiable information about the world while they fly. Different perspectives and another person’s point of view will seamlessly become a visual activity to participate in. There’s no end in sight to what’s possible.
A Future of Possibility
Inventors and artists are the ones who tend to lead the way when it comes to future technology. Our ability to transform the world and our lives is limited only to our imagination. With mixed reality, we’re given a blank canvas over the rich and vast natural environment. It’s almost as if the internet has found a new conduit or rather a physical manifestation of itself and divorced itself from the computer screen. This very well could be the beginning of a seismic shift of our shared technological realities.
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Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case
- The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
- Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
- A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict
The death of Old Yugoslavia
Image: public domain
United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.
Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.
The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.
After the wars
Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons
Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.
The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.
So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it never was: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Kosovo is of extreme historical and symbolic significance for Serbians. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.
Kosovo divides the world
Image: public domain
In red: states that have recognised the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that continue to recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).
The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it has a lot of international support for that position (2). Not just from its historical protector Russia, but also from other states that face separatist movements (e.g. Spain and India).
Despite their current conflict, Kosovo and Serbia have the same long-term objective: membership of the European Union. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.
Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.
Land for peace?
Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.
In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.
The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this simmering conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.
The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by no less than Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.
If others can do it...
Image: Ruland Kolen
Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.
Sceptics - and more than a few locals - warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.
Western powers, which sponsored Kosovo's independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.
Borders are the Holy Grail of modern nationhood. Countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging. Nevertheless, land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the River Meuse (3). But those bits of land were tiny and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders pack a lot more baggage in the Balkans.
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