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As AR blurs with VR, get ready for mixed-reality renaissance

“It’s just semantics. Virtual reality and augmented reality are the same thing, the same experience, and it’s only marketing that divides them.”

That’s the opinion of Ben Kidd, founder of Curiscope, a startup technology company that’s heavily involved with both AR and VR. It’s a controversial opinion. Just like most people would argue that 360-degree video isn’t virtual reality, there are some who see AR and VR as two separate, distinct things. VR takes you to entirely new worlds, and AR simply adds visuals onto the real world.

VR is the future, and AR is the past. That’s how some see it. AR is considered established technology that has already had its day, and while the concept was always exciting, the end result was usually underwhelming, especially when it ended up in the hands of marketers and advertisers. VR, on the other hand, is the next major tech revolution — an industry that’s projected to be worth tens-of-billions in a matter of years, and one that’s on the cusp of going mainstream. We should all be very excited about it, indeed.

We visited Curiscope’s London office to see what it’s doing, and to talk about where AR goes from here.

Curiscope is attracting attention for the Virtuali-Tee, its first product, which recently closed a successful Kickstarter campaign and migrated over to Indiegogo. At first, the tech is best described as augmented reality, but the more you learn, the more it crosses over into what we usually call virtual reality, and into a brand new realm of things-to-come. It’s proof that the line between the AR and VR has blurred.

The Virtuali-Tee is a t-shirt with an unusual design on the front. Point a smartphone or tablet’s camera at it, and it becomes a window to the inside of our body. Our innards are exposed on the device’s screen, in surprising detail, although they’re not quite anatomically correct. It’s an educational app, and Curiscope’s vision revolves around informing kids in an engaging, enjoyable way. Your heart, lungs, and other organs are then animated in a disturbingly realistic way.

“There’s a hole between homework and PlayStation,” Kidd told Digital Trends, “and that’s where Curiscope will fit.” When the Virtuali-Tee reaches people in about four months time, the app will be the gateway to a tour of the human torso. With the t-shirt on and the app open, important organs and other parts-of-interest will be highlighted. When you tap on a specific organ, the app provides factoids and information on their role in our lives.

“We want it to be intellectually challenging while remaining entertaining. Like watching a really great documentary,” Kidd said, who likened the company’s ethos to that of movie studio Pixar — kid-centric, but still fun for the whole family. The virtual reality aspect appears when you tap a special hotspot. The app is ready to play an immersive video, transporting us deep inside the body. This part is best experienced with a VR headset. Curiscope is creating the content, and the results promise to be fantastic. We saw an astonishing 360-degree shark video, which really highlighted the possibilities of the tech.

Read: Our reviews of the Oculus Rift, and the HTC Vive

You can enjoy the Virtuali-Tee experience by holding a smartphone up and pointing it at a friend wearing the shirt, or by looking at your own shirt in a mirror. All kinds of VR headsets work with the app, including basic systems like Google Cardboard, or more complex headsets like Samsung’s Gear VR. Compatibility with HTC Vive is also achievable, and integration with Microsoft’s Hololens will only be a short step away, once the headset becomes more widely available. Curiscope’s obviously keen to cover all the bases.

What’s next, after exploring our innards, for the Virtuali-Tee? Curiscope is focusing on education, but it talked about how the t-shirt and app could be used to bring understanding to invisible diseases. Using cystic fibrosis as an example, it could use storytelling to communicate with people about how these diseases affect an otherwise healthy-looking body.

It could also play a role in helping sufferers cope. Exercise is an important part of managing cystic fibrosis, and by illustrating how working out can benefit the body, the Virtuali-Tee’s successors could be used as motivational tools for young people with the disease.

Kidd explained the long-term intention for the project. “It’s a portal to the body to help children, who often resent and reject these conditions, understand and accept them instead.” More controversially, the app could be used to show the negative effects of cigarettes and alcohol on the lungs and liver. Using viewpoints like this, that most of us will never have, makes a simple t-shirt seem like a very powerful tool indeed.

Is augmented reality the Sinclair C5 to VR’s Tesla Model S? No.

“VR and AR will become one,” continued Kidd. “We just don’t know what it’ll be called yet.” Kidd, and Curiscope co-founder Ed Barton, have a suitably sci-fi, but still realistic, vision for the way AR and VR will influence education and lives in the far future. They described a Star Trek-style Holodeck in each kid’s bedroom, which would make it possible for them to virtually travel anywhere and see almost anything.

Kidd called current VR technology a “Stark, dystopian idea,” that’s perfect for short, intense experiences, but not for long-term use, because of the need to shut out the world to enjoy it.

“The reality we have is fascinating, and AR is a way to bring exciting things into our current world, rather than disappearing into another.” The technology that comes closest to that future vision where AR and VR have become one, that we know of at the moment, is Microsoft’s Hololens. Mixed reality is the buzzword name for the world it creates.

If companies like Curiscope continue to invest time and creative effort into the idea, AR will have found its true purpose.

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