Mark Knowles-Lee looks a bit like Elvis Costello. His eyes, behind a pair of thick rimmed spectacles, have the constant, irreverent glint of a mischief maker. I ask if he minds me recording our conversation and he says he does, but really, he doesn’t. It’s this blurring of the real and the created that Mark steadily manipulates as CEO of Fracture Reality, formerly known as Fracture Games.
If VR is TV on crack, then MR is life with superpowers. Click To Tweet
‘We made a firm pivot,’ says Mark, ‘away from games towards Mixed Reality (MR). We stepped away from games because the MR technology required isn’t really anywhere near ready for the consumer, so the market just isn’t there yet.’
The pivot away from games and towards Mixed Reality wasn’t anything that concerned him. Firstly, the skills set and knowledge base required for both has a lot of crossover and, secondly, the number of industries in which Mixed Reality can be applied is vast.
‘If VR is the technology of empathy, MR is the technology of efficiency,’ says Mark.
Fracture Reality set about working towards one specific goal: to create MR tools and applications for Microsoft’s Hololens which enable a truly collaborative experience.
It’s this scope for a shared experience that fuels Mark’s love for MR.
‘With VR, you’re shut off from the rest of the world,’ he says, ‘it’s a solitary experience. Really, people want to interact with the world around them; with the other people around them.’If VR is the technology of empathy, MR is the technology of efficiencyClick To Tweet
Mark tells me about the discussions he’s had with leading figures from a vast variety of fields. Time and time again, he says, the same question is asked; ‘How can we use this technology to better collaborate with each other?
So that became the focus of Fracture Reality, working to develop Hololens tools that allow multiple people to collaborate on a project through the medium of MR.
‘The thing we like about Hololens, above its rival devices, is the fact that you can still look at the world around you at the same time. Some people consider the limited field of vision to be a flaw in the current tech, but I think it makes the device perfect for business use; that ability to be simultaneously part of the real and the virtual. Also, the Hololens already has many of the capabilities that MR requires in order to fulfil its potential.’
The Hololens is tangible and actionable, rather than theoretical. But it does still cost $3000. This is a business tool and not yet a viable option for the consumer market.
What can it do?
Let’s get down to brass tacks; what can Mixed Reality actually do for us? In what ways is it going to improve our daily, working lives?The Hololens is tangible and actionable, rather than theoretical.Click To Tweet
‘The true capability and application of MR is ubiquitous, to be honest.’ says Mark. But, to avoid going down that rabbit hole right now, we are focusing on the business world.’
Specifically, Fracture Reality are working on MR tools that allow teams, in many industries, to explore options and ask the question, ‘what if?’, in real time and from different locations.
‘The world of business can get very complicated very quickly. The Hololens allows you to observe theories, assess options and make decisions much more quickly and intuitively than before.’
Mark likes to compare it to Pixar, the animation company behind Toy Story and Finding Nemo. It’s well known that Pixar films take years and years to travel from original concept to the cinema screen. To date, the longest project has taken 7 years. They’re immensely complicated processes that need serious organisation to carry out. To do this, they use a storyboard. Each frame, each beat, each emotional hook, drawn out in front of them. The storyboard turns an incredibly complex task with hundreds of different aspects into an easy to understand and follow series of panels.
MR has the same ability. Complex and convoluted theories can be taken from paper to 3D where all the data is available and digestible.
That’s when I was handed a Hololens, a head-mounted display that looks to be little less than an elaborate pair of sunglasses. Except, when you put it on, a square section of each lens becomes your MR portal upon which all images, data and other tech wizardry appear. If you’ve ever seen The Terminator, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
The Hololens demonstration that Mark gives me is a piece of city planning software that Fracture are working on. Using Minority Report-style hand gestures, recognised by the many, many cameras all over the headset, Mark places an empty plot of land on the table (the table is real) in front of us. We both have headsets on, we are seeing the same thing. Then, like choosing between weapons in Call of Duty, he starts picking up buildings and then placing them on the land. I walk around the table, watching Mark Knowles-Lee play God.
‘When you’re happy with what you’ve got,’ says Mark, dragging the sun across the sky above his hologram city to check that at no point during the day will the buildings cast undesirable shadows, ‘you can put someone, via a VR headset, inside the city to see what it will look like for its future citizens.’
It’s remarkable, engaging and practical whilst always retaining an undeniable sense of fun. Being part of this town planning process is a joy. And the best part of it all is being able to share the experience.
Both Mark and I can see the city we are building on the table, we can walk around it, go underneath it, get closer, move away, and it stays exactly where it is. But, most importantly, we can also still see and hear each other. It’s all jolly good fun, especially being able to manipulate the world around you with extravagant, yet somehow subtle, hand gestures, which have been given wonderful names such as ‘the bloom’.
‘I think when Mixed Reality becomes ubiquitous in the future, a new social issue will be one of trust’ says Mark. ‘The fact that you can’t see what people outside your connected group are looking at.’
You will be sat opposite someone on a train and have no way of knowing what they’re looking at in their Mixed Reality device. Are they accessing personal information about you? Are they playing Words with Friends? You just don’t know. This is bound to make people uncomfortable.
Some might say that another obstacle to AR’s success is the fact that it does not have the same emotional effect on users as VR does. I put this to Mark and he answers swiftly and definitely:
‘First and foremost, we humans connect emotionally with other humans; Mixed Reality puts no tangible barriers between people. VR, on the other hand, recreates or simulates scenarios to create empathic moments. TV and film are already used as powerful messengers of empathic content, but the majority the content we consume is fairly sanitised. I don’t think technology is the issue here, instead, it’s consumer demand. That said, VR is more immersive and a better experiential medium than Mixed Reality right now.’
He goes on to tell me that we may be entering a new renaissance. The renaissance was the period in which the rules of perspective and proportion were introduced to painting and drawing, meaning that a 2D object could appear three-dimensional on a painting or, these days, on a monitor or screen.
But, on screens, just like paintings, even though an object may appear 3D, you still can’t tell what it looks like on the other side. ‘You can see the cup, but you don’t know if whether or not there’s a handle on the other side,’ says Mark.
He argues that Mixed Reality overcomes this. Using the real world as it’s canvas, you are able to interact and explore the world and objects around you as if you were actually holding them; one can even move around and navigate objects as you would in real life. The whole experience is very intuitive because your head becomes the 3D camera.
If VR is TV on crack, then MR is life with superpowers. If VR is empathy, MR is efficiency. Where VR lends itself to Dystopia, MR helps understand the real world. These are the arguments that an MR enthusiast would put to you.Using the real world as it’s canvas, you are able to interact and explore the world and objects around youClick To Tweet
What does the future hold for AR? What is its potential?
One interesting idea that Mark puts forward concerns air quality. You could be walking through town and, thanks to your Hololens, see which areas have the most polluted air, or which have the highest pollen count. Information about everything around you can be fed directly to the lens.
Not only that but while avoiding the pollen, you’ll be able to know which of your friends have passed through this area before you. Like Mario Kart, where you race ‘the ghost’ during a time-trial race, you can see you friend’s ghost walk by you, or sitting, eating at Pret.
The potential implementations are ubiquitous. The worlds of engineering, education, health, entertainment, science, law enforcement and journalism are all ripe for MR disruption. In fact, you’d be hard pushed to find an industry that MR doesn’t have the potential to aid.
The big question really should be how much information can the human brain hold and process. With MR, there is potential to give human beings a sixth sense, maybe even a seventh and an eighth. It all depends on how much the brain can actually do.
To prove to me that our brains can probably do a lot more than we realise, Mark tells me about an experiment carried out in Switzerland:
A group of people were asked to wear a belt. They had to wear it all the time. The belt then constantly delivered a small electronic prod to their waist, from the direction of true north. All the time, it prods from the north.
At first, the group said it was pretty annoying, but after a few weeks, they all reported that they had stopped even noticing it. However, they were then asked to carry out a series of tasks based on their sense of direction and every one of them demonstrated a greatly improved ability to know where they are and where they need to go. The belt is allowing for the subconscious knowledge of which direction you’re walking in, at all times.
If no-one knew the brain had the ability to adapt like that, then who’s to say what else it can do? MR is probably our best way of finding out.
Fracture Games are on the cutting edge of Mixed Reality. Mark’s enthusiasm and his confidence in his work are hard to ignore and easy to enjoy. Meeting him has left me with the sense that there is something unique about MR that other tech doesn’t seem to have. I have struggled for some time to try and work out what that is, and the closest I can get to it is this:
If you follow the theoretical future timeline of VR, AI or Robotics, sooner or later you end up in a place that seems quite inhospitable, a world where the human condition has less and less freedom to express itself. But with MR, I don’t feel that way. Why? I think it’s because when you look at the future of MR, you still see humans living in a recognisable human world. We may indeed all be receiving a constant stream of live information, but that’s only a few steps removed from a social media feed.
MR doesn’t replace people and it doesn’t replace the real world. It doesn’t promote isolation and it doesn’t insist on you making a choice between the real and the fake. For me personally, I would rather live in a world that relies heavily on Mixed Reality than any other technological innovation.