OPINION

Meta’s new “Meta Reality” is a terrible idea

Meta’s new “Meta Reality” is a terrible idea

As if the terminology around VR and AR technologies wasn’t complex enough, Meta has to introduce yet another marketing reinterpretation of an already known and named technology with “Meta Reality”. Who needs that anyway?

In 1994, interface researcher Paul Milgram defined mixed reality as a continuum in which individual immersive technologies such as VR, AR, or video-based AR (passthrough AR) exist.

In his insightful definition, mixed reality is a state characterized by the degree to which real-world and digital content are blended. Mixed reality can theoretically manifest itself in a device as long as it can handle some form of VR and some form of AR.

Mixed reality according to Milgram and Kishino (1994). | Image: MIXED

Then Microsoft came along with Hololens – and mixed it all up. The company has referred to Hololens as a mixed reality headset instead of an AR headset, arguing that it offers a higher-quality form of augmented reality and therefore needs its own name.

However, it is nowhere written that augmented reality ends at a certain quality level. Microsoft simply wanted to claim a more euphonious name for itself – and by the way, also called its VR devices “mixed reality headsets”. Magic Leap and others have jumped on the bandwagon since then.

Passthrough AR as the new mixed reality

More and more VR headsets are currently coming to market with video passthrough, which can be extended with digital elements. This feature is not new; the first Vive headset already offered it in a rudimentary form, also with digital expansion.

But this so-called passthrough video (AR) has since gained massively in quality and especially in spatial understanding, so that the video image can be digitally extended in three dimensions. AR with video passthrough is considered an intermediate step towards the big goal, slim AR headsets suitable for everyday use.

If manufacturers were to follow Milgram’s lead, they could legitimately call these new VR-AR video devices mixed reality headsets. They are not only capable of VR or AR individually, but can also move along the mixed reality scale to a certain extent – from pure virtual reality to passthrough AR.

But Meta and co. prefer to declare Passthrough AR or Augmented VR as mixed reality mode – because it sounds better. That is understandable from a marketing perspective, and as long as people understand what is meant, that is fine. Hardly anyone cares anyway.

Now Meta Reality

But what makes Meta introduce “Meta Reality”, the third term for the same thing, Mixed Reality, or more precisely Passthrough AR?

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“Meta Reality is our unique mixed reality system,” Meta writes, a “complex system of multiple hardware and software technologies such as high-resolution sensors, Passthrough, AI-powered Scene Understanding, and Spatial Anchors, all working together seamlessly and comfortably.”

Instead of admitting that this is about branding and that Meta might position itself against an “Apple Reality” 2023, which would be honest and okay, Meta justifies the additional name with technical pseudo-arguments: According to the company, it wants to differentiate itself from manufacturers that market even a simple video view as mixed reality.

“There’s a common misconception that mixed reality can be accomplished simply by showing a real-time high-resolution video feed of the physical world inside the headset, but the truth is far more complex,” Meta writes. Meta Reality differentiates itself from these simple solutions by providing a better understanding of the environment.

Common misconception? In what universe, Meta.

I think the choice of name is also unfortunate from a marketing perspective: in the context of the metaverse, a common anti-Meta dystopia is that Zuckerberg and co. want to absorb users into an alternative digital reality. Come to the “Meta Reality” is more in line with the proponents of this dystopia.

Moreover, the term causes even more confusion in the much too nerdy XR industry, which is overloaded with technical jargon. Meta doesn’t even manage to explain the Metaverse in a way that appeals to many people. Replacing mixed reality with Meta Reality, a term that simultaneously competes with Metaverse dystopias and mixed reality technology, I think is a wrong decision.

It’s interesting that Meta doesn’t use the term “metaverse” once in its three recent blog posts about VR and AR technology and their future. Perhaps Meta Reality will soon follow a similar path.