Business - September 24, 2017

‘Mixed reality’ emerges as new growth area for Orlando firm

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]n Orlando tech company that builds virtual reality-based training systems has made a push into a fast-growing field that combines the technology with augmented reality.

Known as “mixed reality,” it allows two people wearing headsets in different real-world locations to work “alongside” one another in the same virtual world, seeing the same images and in the same settings.

The technology could improve remote training, as instructors can provide feedback or manipulate the same virtual objects a student sees.

That form of instruction could stick with students better than conference calls or online-based instruction, said Howard Mall, Engineering & Computer Simulations’ vice president of engineering.

Industry research, he said, shows simulated training increases retention.

“The more engaging an experience, the more it will be readily remembered,” said Mall, whose company has built mixed-reality modules for automotive, military and medical applications.

The recent growth of mixed reality, along with the continuing development of virtual and augmented reality, could strengthen Central Florida’s economy.

The region is home to hundreds of simulation-based military defense contractors and video game developers, many of which incorporate VR and AR into their products.

As its sophistication grows, mixed-reality technology can open new applications, such as interaction with real-world obstacles.

A player using the Pokemon Go app, for instance, might have critters change sizes based upon distance or hidden from sight by a desk until the player turns a corner in the real world — unlike the game’s current format.

The emergence of Microsoft’s Hololens VR platform has helped make virtual, augmented and mixed realities accessible to more people, said Greg Welch, a professor at the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Simulation and Training.

It’s easy to take out of the box and use right away, he said.

Also key: The Hololens renders virtual objects quickly enough to minimize lag time between a user’s head movement and the movement of the digital field of view, he said.

That lag has been a major obstacle in making virtual reality more believable and more immersive.

The trick to making the technology realistic involves getting several systems working closely together, Welch said.

He compares it to a movie set: while audiences see two people speaking on a park bench, for instance, the behind-the-scenes camera crews and directors work together to create the scene.

That’s what sensors, hardware and graphics processors do, he said.

“All of that stuff has to come together,” Welch said. “If any of them do their job poorly, it just doesn’t work.”

Microsoft’s Ignite conference in Orlando next week will include a sizable dose of mixed reality.

At least 16 sessions will cover the topic in some form, with Microsoft experts on hand to teach everything from the basic “Mixed Reality 101” to the more-immersive “Building Windows Mixed Reality Experiences with Unity.”

Microsoft mixed-reality expert Robert Evans will attend an Orlando VR meetup group Tuesday.

“It has become an overarching term,” said Richard Terrell, a VR developer and entrepreneur who recently started Lightbulb Labs, which will focus on general applications for mixed reality.

“They are Microsoft engineers, the ones working with the technology and helping others use it,” he added.

“It’ll bring more opportunities to local developers and local businesses interested in mixed reality within the Microsoft system.”

Mall plans to show off Engineering & Computer Simulations’ creation at the event.

In a roughly 100-square-foot office at the company’s headquarters just west of UCF, Mall and software engineer Scott Beck immerse themselves in a virtual machine shop.

Mall has done so using VR glasses, while Beck dons AR goggles.

In the scenario, Mall, as instructor, can pinpoint exactly where Beck, as a student, would have to inspect to get more information on a part or repair needed.

That they do so using just a software program and two headsets illustrates that mixed-reality programs have become more powerful as they become smaller, Mall said.

More complex systems contained in domes typically are used in flight simulators or driving simulators.

Some video games also put players within a 360-degree environment and the military uses VR domes to train soldiers.

“These devices provide much more immersive experiences for simulation with a much smaller footprint,” Mall said.

“When you simulate a domed environment into goggles, for instance, you have reduced the cost and raised the availability to provide that training anywhere.”; Twitter, @marcosantana

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