5 ways mixed reality will change future workplaces


August 28, 2018 - Brian Thomas

We are creating technology that can generate digital interfaces out of thin air through the use of glasses or a headset. Devices enabling virtual reality, augmented reality, or mixed reality all provide the opportunity to view information without needing a traditional physical screen, but mixed reality (MR), specifically, creates digital elements that behave as if they’re in our actual scene. Such a capability provides value in many areas of our lives - a major one being the workplace.

We can generate MR with a headset that completely covers a user’s eyes but records what they would otherwise see, such that they are then relayed an immersive video of the real world that is then overlaid with digital elements. This version of MR can then act as VR if it completely replaces the video feed with other visual information.

MR can also work by using goggles, as seen with Hololens, Meta, or Magic Leap (and maybe even glasses in the future) that don’t completely cover users’ eyes. Though, narrow fields of view on digital elements sometimes presents as a challenge for more minimalistic devices. With such goggles, the actual workplace scene would pass through their lenses, where it either overlays elements on the glass or stimulates the eye with projections.

Although this technology’s functionality currently varies from brand to brand and requires continued enhancement until it reaches widespread stability and usability, it is improving every day. Its capability to enact change in many areas of life means we sometimes need to project forward to realize how best to utilize it.

The workplace presents a prime location to benefit from the digital interactivity enabled by mixed reality. Since MR produces motion-tracked elements that react to real world features and gestures, it can serve as a powerful tool in these environments, where individuals constantly process, display, and exchange information. Here are just five of the many ways MR will make an impact.

1. Computing experience

Enterprise grade MR headsets and glasses will relinquish workers from fixed, physical computer monitors to bring them into a new age of computing. Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, agrees and says “the ultimate computer for me is the mixed reality world.” He adds, “Your field of view becomes an infinite display. You see the world and in the world you see virtual objects and holograms.”

Instead of relying on a single screen or a dual monitor, workstations will consist of as many screens as desired in a 3D space. The user can precisely position, scale, reposition, and delete these virtual screens as needed. This will allow for extremely customizable computing environments with each virtual screen catering to the exact height, location, and distance desired by the user.

Multiple screens in VR

Bigscreen VR app showing how multiple screens can be used for a customizable computing environment.

Such workstations lift the physical constraints of traditional screens to improve viewing and multitasking experiences as well as body posture. This improvement to workstation ergonomics makes for a more enjoyable, comfortable, and healthier workplace.

2. Presentations

The functionality that enables placement of virtual screens wherever desired extends its benefits to the displays of presentations too. A projector, white screen, or light-colored wall will no longer register as a necessity in all cases if participants possess glasses or headsets.

Presenting with MR lets everyone with a device view the slideshow and graphics wherever they desire in their field of view and without obstruction. Workers can place their own resizable virtual screen in a floating position in front of them as well as onto physical features of the room. No more stiff necks from having to bend around if you’ve found yourself located in a bad seat.

An MR presentation will eventually function in a unique way. The presenter simulates a traditional screen by pushing to viewers’ headsets a large, motion-tracked overlay of the slideshow on a wall, with the option of keeping it in mid-air as well. From there, the presenter can point to and annotate the virtual display as if it was really there, and manipulate certain visuals with their hands in the air.

In addition to this, mini slideshow screens sit in each viewer’s location of choice. These features open up possibilities for conducting presentations or meetings in locations without projectors or walls, and can provide a more nuanced experience while doing so.

3. Training

Mixed reality offers an opportunity to train workers with simulated hands on experiences. Since professions in medical, engineering, and product design fields, among so many others, require intense experiential training, some of it can be pawned off on MR.

HoloLens being used to train workers with data

Employees wear a Windows Mixed Reality headset that uses Microsoft’s HoloLens to simulate various activities in a plant. The software uses a combination of augmented reality and virtual reality, providing a mixed reality experience combined with data analytics.

Running through training experiences in MR presents an improvement over simply watching videos and allows for a realistic simulation without exhausting actual, physical resources. It lets workers test out different scenarios without ruining anything. It also offers the opportunity for an unlimited number of practice attempts. Using MR for training will serve as a solid aid to augment effectiveness of traditional lectures and actual, physical exercises.

VR operates in the same way in terms of its training functionality, and it is already helpful in many workplaces. Though, MR not only permits employees to experience and manipulate 3D models, but also allows personnel to feel as if they are doing so in the real, physical place in which they are located. Remember, with MR, the user’s real scene relays into their virtual environment via camera (headset version), or by simply passing through the lenses of glasses.

To create this effect in VR, it would require an accurate and realistic 3D model of the room or environment that trainees find themselves in, in addition to models to simulate the others in the space.

With MR, all this information simply passes into the user’s digital scene by default, which helps with creating a training experience authentic to the real thing. If a virtual environment happens to be desired, MR hardware that owns the capability of completely replacing a field of view with digital information, can transport trainees to any given virtual environment, just like with VR.

4. Spatial data visualizations and aided execution

Mixed reality provides users the ability to view and manipulate visualizations of data in 3D space. Whether workers want to pop a graph into a colleague's view on the spot, or they need to study a timelapse of topographic change, MR affords them the functionality to do so. Since the technology allows its digital overlays to respond to real scenes, such visualizations can be placed on tables, walls, or simply in mid-air.

Presenting data in this way becomes extra useful when it’s in the form of a 3D model. For example, those needing to collaborate over a diagram of a human body or three-dimensional cross section of a machine can usefully view, manipulate, and assess specific aspects of the visualization with their colleagues in a real-time 3D space.

Workers collaborate over a machine in mixed reality

In addition to deriving insights from spatial visualizations of data, MR also allows workers to follow visual guides in order to execute tasks. A number of different roles benefit from the ability to reference digital overlays when assessing, handling, or repairing physical products. For example, workers in manufacturing jobs can follow graphics placed onto areas of a machine in order to more efficiently and confidently manipulate its features.

Other workers may benefit from bits of information that hover over parts of machines as they assess their conditions. The many different avenues of functionality in guiding execution present an opportunity to increase worker productivity.

5. Customization of workplace aesthetic

Since commercial-grade MR permits motion tracking of digital elements into individuals’ scenes, workers will eventually be able to customize the aesthetics of their workplace. When wearing a headset, users can select colored solids (large, thin 3D panels) to stick onto walls. Additionally, 3D objects will let workers experience an array of possible decorations to be used at their disposal.

With this setup, each worker can possess their own office aesthetic or several of their own, depending on the day, their mood, or current desires. With MR hardware that completely covers the field of view, they can also transport to any 3D environment within which to conduct their work. Every seat is a window seat or a seat in the middle of the beach, mountains, or grass field. Inherently allotted with this feature of MR is the ability to adjust lighting to maximize energy and mood as well as the option to create conditional privacy.

With the power to spawn walls and alternate environments comes the chance to toggle degrees of privacy that allow workers to feel more or less alone, depending on the situation. Knowing others around you may also find themselves in private, alternate environments further sells the effect and may warrant a feature to notify individuals on whether their close by peers’ currently reside in a private, virtual location or the real office.

With this power, comes the necessity to balance preoccupation with environments against getting work done and staying connected with teammates. After all, the technology will permit workers to exist in a shared virtual environment that can incorporate smaller, individual-level modifications, while providing workers virtual presence with each other regardless of where they are located in the “real-world”.

Looking forward

Some aspects of this technology currently loom closer than others. Right now, we are already deep in progress with digital overlays that track to our physical scenes. The next step will be ensuring MR hardware possesses the required fidelity to accurately track in all real-world workplace environments.

Then, the task will be to enhance the opacity of the digital overlays such that they appear as solids and not just holograms, while also ensuring they securely react to our hand gestures for manipulation.

In the end, MR will need to benefit from the mentioned advancements to bring it to the point of stability and functionality needed for the types of commercial use mentioned here. Major investment is pouring into this space, so stay tuned on developments. Hopefully, such developments, as well as those related to wearability, enter the scene sooner rather than later so workers can take advantage of the next step in workplace computing.



Guest author: Brian Thomas, Enlightened Digital

Contributor to Enlightened Digital, long-distance cyclist, and lifelong advocate for women in business from Philadelphia. Tech and business are my lifeblood, but I’m also a fanatic of brewpubs and just about every sports team in Philadelphia.