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Canon's MREAL Mixed Reality System hands-on preview

Canon, a company known primarily for its camera and printer divisions, unveiled an unexpected and unique project this week called MREAL.

The project, which has been in development for years, teams Canon with a number of digital design companies to deliver what they believe is a ground-breaking venture into virtual reality. The system incorporates a head-mounted display and various markers or sensors to immerse people in a world filled with elements of real-life and computer generated images. And fortunately, we got the chance to try out the MREAL system at New York's Classic Car Club.

The MREAL system focuses on mixed reality, not to be confused with full-on virtual reality. Instead of replacing everything you see with a virtual world, the MREAL system integrates computer generated images into real-world environments. It amounts to a more interactive world, where users can interact with actual physical objects in conjunction with an overlay of various computer generated objects, backdrops, and even prehistoric creatures.

The crux of the MREAL system is Canon's head-mounted display (HMD), which mounts two video cameras in front of each eye to capture images from the real world.

Behind each camera is a small monitor, where the images captured from the real world and images generated by designers are intermingled and projected for the wearer. The objects are three dimensional and, because of the various sensors in the HMD, users can walk or look around without disrupting the virtual images.

Canon showcased a number of demos, transporting attendees into virtual worlds filled with exotic cars, dinosaurs, and a nifty box filled with blooming flowers. Designers can implement MREAL using a number of different options – there are physical markers, infrared sensors, and magnetic sensors.

Using physical markers, one demo projected a small dinosaur onto a platform. I was able to walk around and inspect the dinosaur from various angles, ultimately watching it scurry off into a virtual hole. Another demo used infrared sensors to put attendees in the seats of various exotic cars, where you could inspect details like cup holder placement, or step out and take a look at the tire tread.

MREAL's potential is limited only by the imagination of designers, but Canon highlighted a few industries where MREAL could be most useful. The first was medical therapy and rehabilitation, where the MREAL could prove valuable for patients with cognitive and neurological injuries – the system could recreate a familiar home setting, while allowing rehab and specialists to monitor progress from their labs. Canon also noted the benefits for product design and testing, where MREAL could eliminate the need for physical prototypes, saving companies money in the process.

At a starting price of $125,000 (£82,000) with a $25,000 (£16,000) annual maintenance fee, the MREAL is decidedly out of reach for average consumers. But unlike the Oculus Rift and Google Glass, which have been snagging the virtual/augmented reality headlines, Canon's MREAL is focused on business and design workflow. At the very least, MREAL is an exciting look into the possible future of virtual and mixed reality.