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War Of AR/VR/MR/XR Words

This post was originally featured on on October 20, 2017

Virtual Reality (VR) is about humanity’s quest for immersion. It provides presence and agency in other worlds, in stories and myths, and it stretches from Plato’s cave to religious rituals, theater, dark rides, theme parks, film, television, and video games, all of which require our willing suspension of disbelief.

Augmented Reality (AR), on the other hand, has its historical antecedents in tools. Humanity has always sought tools to make people stronger, faster, and smarter. AR is the ultimate expression of man’s quest for mastery. It is a tool, like a club. This is why it’s seeing its first real applications in commercial circumstances: beat your business with this club and money pours out.

In short, VR is a new reality, AR is about enhancing reality.

Current dogma is that VR is an extension of AR, as represented by the Milgram Scale (aka the Windows’ MR Continuum). It is no such thing. VR and AR come from different places and they seek to do different things. New and enhanced are not the same — and they are not on a continuum. They use some of the same technology, and 3D objects and AI are important to both, but so what? Computers do a lot of different things.

Created in 1994 by two academics, the Milgram Mixed Reality Spectrum sought to explain the relationship of Virtual and Augmented Reality. They failed. Miserably.

In 1994, Professor Paul Milgram and Fumio Kishino created the mixed reality spectrum to explain the relationship of AR and VR. On one end is physical reality, on the other is a fully occluded, digital world. They described their definition as a line “between the extrema of the virtuality continuum, which extends from the completely real, transits augmentation, and arrives in the completely virtual.” Earlier this year, Microsoft introduced Windows 10 MR and trotted out an updated Milgram Scale, rebranded as “The Mixed Reality Spectrum”, in which the HoloLens and their new occluded VR headsets sit conveniently on opposing sides. This is wrong, and not just because they don’t credit Milgram.

AR head mounted displays (HMDs) are inevitable, and undoubtedly there will be headsets on the market that do both VR and AR, but that does not mean these activities are the same.

The quest for immersion represented by VR and the desire to be augmented, vis-a-vie AR, are very different things. Until now, academics and scientists have seen VR and AR related on the spectrum, with one side anchored in physical reality and the other in the fully digital virtual world. This has been in most of my presentations but I had a recent epiphany. It’s not true. One doesn’t lead to the other. The hardware distinctions may at times be subtle, but the difference in use cases is not.

Similarly misleading is the notion that the more immersive the experience, the more like VR-like AR becomes. I cannot think of a single use case or proof of this. You are either augmenting or replacing.

Right now, the largest companies in the world are preying on this confusion like a pack of hyenas. I like the people at Microsoft. Their appropriation of “MR”, as in “Windows MR”, should be kind of funny, as they are stealing the flawed Milgram scale. It’s like the perfect bank job, until the loot turns out to be monopoly money. My sides still hurt from laughing.

Just in case we weren’t confused enough about the language, Microsoft is introducing Windows 10 MR (MIXED REALITY) with new fully occluded VIRTUAL REALITY headsets. Just let it sink in for a second. Raise your hand if you are NOT confused.

To make matters worse, the Consumer Technology Association, of which Microsoft is a member, put out a set of AR/MR/VR/XR definitions last fall which it, and apparently the rest of the industry, appears to have ignored. I would like to say they tried, but if a press release falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it make a sound?

Also, as long as we’re at it, Microsoft has also unhelpfully confused the definition of holograms by dubbing the Hololens, a “holographic computer”. Seriously? Here’s a link to the definition of a hologram. Note that the key quality of the hologram is that it can be viewed by the naked eye without the use of a headset. This is already too long to take on the hologram canard, and it seems like I’m picking a fight with Microsoft.

J’accuse! Steve Mollenkopf, chief executive officer of Qualcomm Inc., one of the 15 highest paid CEOs in America with total comp of 60.7 M. The theft of the scientific term “XR” must weigh heavily on his conscience. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

I would be remiss if I did not call out Qualcomm’s appropriation of the term XR, defined for decades in this way: “X Reality (XR) consists of technology-mediated experiences that combine digital and biological realities”. Qualcomm’s web site (and a new secondary Wikipedia post publicly questioned by Wikipedia’s editors) defines “Extended Reality (XR) is an umbrella term encapsulating Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), mixed reality (MR), and everything in between”.

The good news is that the war is not over. Even if Qualcomm were to succeed in redefining XR, and even if granted the trademark, they could never defend it in court. With that in mind, they are using a common workaround, identifying XR with a graphic mark registered with the US Patent and Trademark Office. #Resist

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