News In Context

Is This Mixed Reality’s Moment?

This week mixed reality – technology that blurs the line between the physical and digital worlds – was back in the news, a signal that it may be getting closer to mass market adoption.  Emerge, a Los Angeles-based company building a multi-sensory communication platform, said it has signed a strategic multi-year engagement with The Walt Disney Company that will enable users to physically feel a “virtual high five” or their favorite digital superpowers, by using their bare hands.

The news broke as Facebook’s parent company unveiled its latest virtual reality device, signalling a continued commitment to building an avatar-filled metaverse while seeking to grab attention ahead of rival Apple’s anticipated headset launch next week. In a video posted on his Instagram account on June 1, Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg teased the new Quest 3 product, which will go on sale in the autumn. It features virtual and augmented reality technologies allowing users to interact in fully digital environments, as well as graphics overlaid on to the real world.The iPhone maker’s consumer headset, which could also incorporate augmented reality technologies, will reportedly work with hundreds of thousands of iPad apps and cost at least $3,000.

Many consumers are put off by expensive and clunky virtual reality and augmented reality (VR/AR) headsets. As a result, the VR/AR industry has proved to be largely disappointing to date. But Emerge’s technology does not require headsets, gloves, or controllers. It says its multi-sensory communication platform will convey human emotions through sight, touch, sound, and brain activity, powered by what it calls emotion AI. The rise of generative AI and its integration with various sensory inputs and outputs opens a unique opportunity in the race for technologies that help strengthen connections across distance, says the company.

The first step is to introduce touch to virtual interactions in displays of the present, including TVs and AR/VR devices, says Emerge. The startup’s patented consumer device, which is the same shape and size as a cable box, emits ultrasound force fields which can be physically felt with bare hands. The company says it will allow people to hold hands across the globe, with no gloves or controllers needed. Soon, Emerge says it will also enable users to digitize and transmit their emotions in real-time, an approach that aims to establish a new standard for personal connection.

Emerge’s partnership with Disney will integrate the entertainment company’s content into the startup’s personal connection platform. Starting with one of Disney’s top franchises, fans “will be able to share multi-sensory experiences and interact with friends and family across the world, from the comfort of home,” the company says.

As the adoption of Internet-enabled TVs continues adding use cases such as streaming video, cloud gaming, and video calls, a new mode of interaction and engagement will be enabled through the sense of touch. This enhancement can provide a more immersive user experience, transforming the way viewers interact with digital content and each other, and shaping the future of communication and interactive media, Sly Spencer-Lee, Co-CEO at Emerge, said in a statement. “In partnering with Disney,… we’re poised to transcend the limitations of current communication technology, leveraging the 1.3 billion smart TVs in homes worldwide,” he said.

Emerge’s offering is part of the emergence of the “Internet of senses,” a term coined by the Swedish telecommunications giant Ericsson in 2019 to describe a combination of future technologies reliant on super-fast 5G and 6G networks to facilitate multi-sensory experiences.

“The Internet of Senses augments our senses beyond the boundaries of our bodies, giving us augmented vision, hearing, touch, and smell. It enables us to blend multisensory digital experiences with our local surroundings and interact with remote people, devices, and robots as if they were right beside us,” says a description of the future  its website.

Ericsson sees use cases beyond immersive communication and entertainment such as all senses online shopping, and sustainable vacations in virtual reality.

By making digital experiences and interaction “as good as being physically there”, the Internet of Senses has the potential to greatly reduce the need for traveling or even offices, and therefore contribute significantly to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, says Ericsson.  It envisions a future where digital sensory experiences can also de-materialize products and enhance services so that fewer resources and energy are consumed.

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About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.