Spotlight: 3DLive and The World's First 'Mixed Reality' Ski Race

Alex Spencer

3DLive SkiingOver the past couple of years, we've seen VR (Virtual Reality) come back into fashion, driven almost entirely by the unveiling of the Oculus Rift. In the process, VR stole the spotlight from AR (Augmented Reality), which looked so promising in the early days of smartphones but seems now to have missed its moment.

Late last month, Microsoft's HoloLens announcement introduced a third term into the conversation, marking the arrival of the next potential buzzword: 'mixed reality'.

Like AR and VR, mixed reality is a decades-old concept. The term was first coined in 1994 to describe any merging of the real and virtual worlds – most commonly, by combining the concepts of VR and AR into a single experience. And it turns out Microsoft isn't the only one currently working on mixed reality.

At the Wearable Technologies conference today in Munich, I witnessed what was billed as the world's first mixed reality ski race, courtesy of a European Commission-funded project called 3DLive.

Three racers, three countries
This race wasn't just happening in Munich. It was also taking place in a CERTH laboratory in Thessalonki, Greece, and on the slopes at the Schladming resort in Austria. Each competitor wasn't only in a separate country, they were using entirely different equipment.

In Munich, one racer (pictured above) donned an Oculus Rift, stood on a Wii Fit balance board, and posed with his ski poles in front of one of Microsoft's Xbox Kinect cameras – all off-the-shelf technology currently available to anyone with a spare $500.

His opponent in Greece stood in front of an array of four Kinect sensors which enabled a 3D model of him, animated in real time, to appear on a virtual recreation of the Schladming slope.

Over in the real world, the skier wore a pair of Recon's Snow smart ski goggles, powered by Android. The goggles were equipped with GPS and head-positioning trackers to follow his real-world movements, and an LCD display that overlaid his view with the race's virtual start and finish line – and the whereabouts of his international competitors.

The real-world skier broadcast his movements over Skype for the assembled crowd in Munich, he was quickly overtaken by his virtual rivals, who had the advantage of being warm and comfortable inside, and of not being surrounded by other people trying to enjoy a quiet ski break.

From concept to reality
The race was the culmination of two years' work by a consortium of six academic organisations across Europe, backed by the European Commission's FIRE (Future Internet Research & Experimentation) program. FIRE funds innovative digital projects that would be unlikely to get conventional backing as they don't have the kind of immediate real-world application that guarantees a speedy return on investment.

However, according to Michael Boniface – technical director for Southampton University's Innovation Centre, and master of ceremonies for this race – the project has very real prospects for commercialisation. Boniface refused to elaborate on what kind of partners were being approached, or exactly what form the commercial opportunities would take, but he did point to the benefits for a ski resort looking for new ways to entertain and attract visitors.

It's not just skiing, either. 3DLive has also explored scenarios for bringing together real and virtual participants in golf and jogging, and Boniface believes the possibilities are more or less endless. He spoke about the potential for running a 3DLive experience alongside a live sports event, giving fans a chance to compete against a professional, or to join in with distant competitions. Imagine taking on Andy Murray at tennis, or running the New York Marathon from the safety of your own home.

These are still strictly hypothetical scenarios, but they're undeniably intriguing, even to someone as sports-averse as myself. Plus, with the initial glow of the HoloLens announcement wearing off and people realising how few actual details were revealed, a ski race – even a virtual one – is a more tangible proof of concept for mixed reality than anything Microsoft offered.