What is Extended Reality (XR)?

Extended reality (XR) is a term referring to all real-and-virtual combined environments and human-machine interactions generated by computer technology and wearables, where the ‘X’ represents a variable for any current or future spatial computing technologies. It includes representative forms such as augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR) and virtual reality (VR) and the areas interpolated among them. The levels of virtuality range from partially sensory inputs to immersive virtuality, also called VR.

XR is a superset which includes the entire spectrum from “the complete real” to “the complete virtual” in the concept of reality–virtuality continuum introduced by Paul Milgram. Still, its connotation lies in the extension of human experiences especially relating to the senses of existence (represented by VR) and the acquisition of cognition (represented by AR). With the continuous development in human–computer interactions, this connotation is still evolving.

XR is a rapid growing field being applied in a wide range of ways, such as entertainment, marketing, real-estate, training and remote work.

Augmented Reality

Augmented reality is the simplest of the three XR subsets and describes the interaction between a virtual experience and the real world, which results in an augmented or supplemented environment. One popular example of augmented reality is the smartphone game “Pokémon GO,” where users virtually place a character somewhere in their surrounding environment.

Augmented reality is slowly making its way into sectors beyond entertainment, such as retail, online shopping, and manufacturing. Augmented reality is arguably the most widely adopted of all XR technologies as it requires the least amount of processing, allowing it to function on most smartphones and tablets. Augmented reality can exist in any environment that contains two necessary features – a camera to capture the surrounding environment and a processor to understand that environment and actively simulate a virtual object placed into that environment

Currently, the only factor slowing the growth of augmented reality is the native processing power in devices where augmented reality will take place.

Virtual Reality

As the name and image above suggest, virtual reality (VR) creates a completely virtual environment that allows users to immerse themselves in an alternate universe. The Oculus, a consumer-grade, multimedia entertainment VR solution, may be the most famous VR system on the market today. Since its founding in 2012, Oculus’s creators have continually pushed the limits of virtual reality technology.

Because virtual reality is completely simulated, users can also supplement the virtual, simulated environment with controllers and other sensory stimulators. The most obvious sensory additives, such as headphones and haptic devices, have already made their way into the virtual reality market. More advanced technologies, such as the haptic technology presented by Ultraleap, are working their way into the virtual reality market to provide users with next-level intractability and feedback.

VR technology is currently limited by low-power processing devices and GPUs. An immersive virtual reality experience requires a fully-developed simulation as well as native processing of the interactions and movement within the simulation. We see one excellent example of these current processing limitations in the jump from “standalone” VR headsets to headsets that require a PC for operation. When compared to standalone simulators, PC virtual reality devices feature more advanced – video quality, refresh rate, video complexity, movement tracking, controller complexity, audio integration and immersive experience.

Mixed Reality

The newest and most complex facet of XR is mixed reality. Think of mixed reality as a hybrid between augmented and virtual reality. Its goal is to superimpose an interactive experience over the real world, allowing for both the simulated reality and true reality. In augmented reality, the ability to interact with the simulation does not exist or is significantly limited. In virtual reality, the ability to interact with the real world does not exist. Mixed reality has set out to fill the gap between the virtual and augmented world; this highly advanced augmented reality allows for an interactive experience that’s similar to virtual reality.

One excellent example of mixed reality is Microsoft’s HoloLens’ integration with Skype, in which the user can superimpose a Skype session into reality, transmit their reality over Skype, and virtually control their Skype session with their hands by “touching” the simulation. Imagine being able to scroll through your Twitter feed or navigate the internet using Google glasses, all while being able to see the world around you.

Mixed reality’s limitations lie in the processing capabilities of available devices. However, this technology may hold the most promising future for revolutionizing how we interact with true reality. Mixed reality has already made its way into employee training, manufacturing, military, and the consumer sector. Imagine putting on your MR goggles to diagnose internal issues within your car, see your current performance, and adjust settings.

As highly complex XR devices become more powerful, efficient, compact, and affordable, this technology will find its way into our everyday lives. Scientists 50 years ago would never have believed we could fit terabytes of storage into a device the size of a stick of gum, but here we are. In 50 more years, we may be able to fit a data center worth of processing power into wearable glasses.

Uses of Extended Reality

Additionally, the hardware and software for interacting with XR have improved drastically over the years. XR technologies have improved with sophisticated tech, high-quality imaging and the perception for depth and spatial surroundings. XR software utilises improved programming, such as hand tracking and live movements, so that the environment that XR creates is very similar to the physical environment. Now, a VR headset is available for a fairly affordable price. Products like the Oculus Rift can show students the future, or introduce other emerging technologies.

In terms of industry use, almost 50% of XR is currently used in education. The interactive technology Google Expeditions allow pupils to sit in their classroom and experience virtual worlds. Similarly, apps such as Unimersiv totally immerse students in the sights and sounds of a foreign culture and language, which is proven to aid learning and development. Indeed, 9 out of 10 teachers in the UK recognise that XR technologies would be a benefit in classroom teaching.

In healthcare, there are many application areas of virtual reality, such as being used to train surgeons and doctors. Medical professors at Stanford University have stated their intention to educate their students on anatomy using VR technology, and a research team at Cambridge University is seeking to construct 3D models of tumours that can be explored in incredible detail.

Research into VR uses in this field has found that VR allows specialists to change in situations that are usually changing on the spot. For example, research has shown that rehearsing surgery in VR can speed up operations. It is also being used to allow health & safety trainees, and emergency responders to rehearse disaster scenarios in a safe but very real looking environment. Fergus Drake, CEO of not-for-profit Crown Agents, stated: “Virtual Reality allows us to go some way in accurately conveying the pressures of a humanitarian crisis and we hope it appeals to a new generation of those wanting to work in this life-saving field.”

Aside from educational applications, XR technology is also being used in design, architecture and engineering. Due to the possible application areas of virtual reality, architects can create 1:1 scale models of their projects, which they can then explore, manipulate and test before commencing the build. Similarly, automotive engineers sculpt new cars and engines in Virtual Reality suites, which brings down the cost of building numerous real-world prototypes.

The many possible VR uses are also helping fashion retailers allow consumers to customise their own garments, as well as building virtual shops so customers can browse their goods from the comfort of their own home. Global furniture makers are using AR technology to allow customers to try out new furniture in their own homes before completing their purchase.

These are just a few examples of the current and potential uses of XR technology. Hire Intelligence’s General Manager, Mark Bates, says: “The rise of XR shows no sign of abating. It’s revolutionising training and events across a variety of industries. As VR technology continues to develop there are more and more opportunities to learn about and engage with XR and the potential is hugely exciting”.

It is clear that XR provides users with a creative way to engage in a variety of new environments through simulation technology. With this, XR also offers logical solutions to modern challenges.