By now we’ve all read the articles about how augmented reality is about to become the next big thing since the smartphone, and many of us have experienced it for ourselves at tech conferences, product launches and demonstrations. However, many skeptics continue to label it a fad, a good idea that will ultimately go nowhere, or a novelty that might be entertaining, but has no practical application. Funny enough, they said the same thing about the Internet in 1995.

As augmented reality continues to pop up in our lives, many of us are using it without even realizing it. The ubiquitous Snapchat filters that turn your face into a dog, or Google Translate, which uses your camera to translate written text into your own language right before your eyes, are just a few examples. However, the widespread use of augmented reality is somewhat limited by the processing power of our smartphones, and many of them still feel awkward and clunky to use. It seems that augmented reality might soon be making way for what’s known as mixed reality.

What is mixed reality?

Essentially, mixed reality is either bringing physical objects into the virtual world, or placing virtual objects in the physical world. On the outside, that can sound a lot like augmented reality, but there are a few key differences.

Augmented reality is more about viewing the real world, and supplementing it with additional information which doesn’t necessarily interact with the physical objects. For instance, American Apparel has an app which lets you use your camera to change their color of the clothes in the store to view further options. Another example would be an app that identifies various food items on the screen then pulls up recipes which could be made using them.

Mixed reality is a bit different, it doesn’t just enhance what’s already there, it actually puts new objects in the picture. Instead of analyzing the food sitting on the table, it puts food on the table; food that you can ‘pick up’ and interact with virtually.

There are smartphone apps which do this already, for instance, IKEA’s furniture app. However, the problem with doing this on your phone, or any screen for that matter is that, it’s not an immersive experience. It’s something you’re looking at, not something you’re taking part in. There’s no depth to a screen, even if you use something like Google Cardboard, the whole image is being projected 2 inches from your face.

Another problem is that you have to interact with the app using the screen. This is where things get awkward and clumsy. Plus the field of vision is limited to the rectangle of your phone or tablet, there’s no peripheral. It’s not immersive.

The way most companies are approaching mixed reality isn’t through smartphones or tablet apps. It’s through headgear. The Microsoft Hololens is currently the frontrunner in this department. You can already buy a ‘development version’ to try out for yourself (Although, it’ll set you back $3,000), and they recently announced that sometime in 2017, all computers running Windows 10 will be able to support the Hololens with an update called Windows Holographic.

With a headset like the Microsoft Hololens, you aren’t looking at the world through a screen, you’re actually looking at the real world through the glasses, and only the digital objects are projected into the lens. This gives a much more immersive experience. You’re not just seeing digital objects in a physical space, you’re experiencing them as if they are actually there. And they look pretty good.

[The virtual drone] looks as real as the lamps and computer monitors around it. It’s not. I’m seeing all this through a synthetic-reality headset. Intellectually, I know this drone is an elaborate simulation, but as far as my eyes are concerned it’s really there, in that ordinary office. It is a virtual object, but there is no evidence of pixels or digital artifacts in its three-dimensional fullness. If I reposition my head just so, I can get the virtual drone to line up in front of a bright office lamp and perceive that it is faintly transparent, but that hint does not impede the strong sense of it being present.” – Peter Yang – Wired Magazine.

How will mixed reality be used?

At the moment, a lot of the applications that are being developed with mixed reality are entertainment based, however, there is a small yet growing number of more useful practical applications. One of these, for instance, would involve teleporting coworkers from offices around the world into a 3D conference room. Or allowing you to suspend a digital TV screen (or many screens) in the middle of the room you’re in. In fact, the team at Magic Leap, one of the companies developing their own mixed reality headset, are planning to completely do away with physical monitors in their office. All work will be done on virtual displays ‘connected’ to the a computer.

Magic Leap envisions a world in the near future where small, personal screens such as computers or smartphones are completely replaced by wearable glasses. All the major tech companies in Silicon Valley seem to think so as well, and have all put considerable money into this new technological realm. It’s no longer a matter of ‘if’ mixed reality is going to become a part of our lives, it’s simply a matter of ‘when’ it’s going to come. It might be sooner than you think.