Extended Reality or XR is a big buzz topic in the technology industry. From its early origins in the 60s with a Sensorama Simulator to the Oculus Quest 2, and even its applications from military to healthcare, XR technology is staking its claim on the world at large, solidifying its place in homes and businesses across the world. It's even crossing industrial boundaries and fighting its way into niches you might not think of. But what is XR and how do you get it?
XR Technology- The Basics
XR technology is used to describe extended reality, or the combination of real and virtual environments by computer technology and wearables. Extended reality is a blanket term that envelops a few more specific types of technology within the concept, of which there are three: augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality. In order to understand extended reality as a whole, it's important to understand each individual piece of the puzzle. Here's a quick rundown of these different subsets of extended reality.
Virtual reality refers to the computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional environment. Users of virtual reality wear headgear and sometimes sensory gloves or handhelds to interact with the virtual environment. It fully immerses the user into a digital environment, cutting off the person's vision and hearing of the physical world.
Augmented reality is similar in that it utilizes technology that overlays graphic images and information onto a physical space. There is less physical interaction between the user and the images and is less immersive as a result, but the information garnered from such an application is priceless.
Mixed reality is a combination of augmented and virtual reality. In order to understand this one, it is important to understand the similarities and differences between both. Virtual reality is just as it sounds, virtual. Its interactions are entirely in a digital space, and it is fully immersive. Augmented reality takes place on the physical space, and it is used more as a supplementary tool. So, it supplements the area around it with images and video and text to enhance the world around the user. Mixed reality uses both types of technology, where the user can interact with the physical space digitally. The real and digital are combined to create a whole new interactive experience.
Extended reality, at its core, is an umbrella term used for technology that enhances or changes the world around us.
The Technology and its Applications
For each type of tech, there is a different device to accompany it. Most people have exactly what they need for augmented reality right in their pocket or purse. It's a smart phone. Using this, the person simply hovers the viewfinder on their phone and selects from a variety of applications, and the world in front of them is transformed into something grand or fantastical, or they're given added information about an object or area- such as language translations in a foreign country.
It gets a little more complicated when we move on to virtual reality. The price point for entry is higher, but the environment is much different. The user wears a headset that offers them a different view entirely from what is physically before them. Using a handheld device, the headset picks up on the subtle changes in their hands, or body (depending on the extent of the device's sensors) and transfers what they're doing physically into what they see in the virtual environment.
Mixed reality, as has been stated, is a combination of the two. The user can see both a physical and a virtual environment. Using a headset and sensors, just like virtual reality, they can move digital objects from one physical place to another, transforming digitally their physical world.
So there's the how, but what can you really do with XR tech? It is quite literally transforming how certain industries operate. Because of the higher retention rate while using these devices, it's used to train new employees, teach students, and help workers focus on specific tasks. Training takes less time to complete, making it an obvious go-to for engineer and mechanics, astronauts, pilots, military members, and healthcare professionals. The applications for any of these realities are endless, but some are better suited for one thing over another.
Augmented reality, for instance, would probably be a better fit for K-12 schools because of its accessibility. Most students already own a phone and tablets are relatively cheap when compared to headsets that virtual and mixed reality require. Certain apps require little to no knowledge of how extended reality works in order to be useful. Small children have an easier time of using cell phones and tablets than they would a big virtual reality headset. Combine the proportionately gigantic headset with the nature of making users motion sick and it's easy to see why augmented reality is more suitable for young children than virtual reality.
Virtual reality is well suited for practical training. For pilots gaining flight experience before putting their skills to the test in an actual airplane or helping to train mechanics on the inner workings of a diesel engine before removing a delicate part. And it would be impossible to forget how it took over the entertainment industry in the early 2000s with virtual reality gaming, but many producers are trying their hand at mixed reality in order to enhance the gaming/entertainment experience.
Of course, mixed reality has potential in other areas. For instance, healthcare workers in just about every area of the hospital already benefit from MR technology. From surgery to school, training with a mixed reality device to freshen up their memory on a procedure would make the process faster and less risky because the person performing the procedure would have the immediate memory. Using mixed reality to explain a procedure or diagnosis to a patient might make the process much easier for them to understand. From practicality to hospitality, mixed reality would be very at home in the hospital.
Where do I get it?
In the 60s, a headset- the Sword of Damocles- was created, but it was by no means mainstream. It would be twenty years before Sega announced the first VR headset for their home consol. Today, mixed reality is becoming as common as desktop computers and monitors. Many major companies, including Google, and Microsoft have created devices to facilitate extended reality. Here are just a few of them and where you can find them.
Google Glass is Google's mixed reality glasses set. It's a small, lightweight wearable computer that blends computer graphics with a real-world video feed to create a more immersive experience.
The Oculus Quest 2, a virtual reality headset, was recently released by Oculus VR.
XR Guru is a next generation education and training application designed to bring learning, XR content creation, and distribution together into one easy-to-use platform.
These are just a few of the possibilities that extended reality has to offer the world. As the industry continues to grow, more devices will show up. Ultimately, the extended reality is a different way, another lens through which to experience the world, and as more of the world is discovered more people will start to look inward (digitally) to experience what they already know. The fact is that XR technology is already mainstream, you just have to look around to see it.
About the Author: Anna Taylor
Anna Taylor is a freelance writer and avid researcher- a jack of all trades, but a master of none. She graduated from the University of Hawai'i with an Associates Degree in Liberal Arts because she had no idea what she wanted to be when she grew up. She has since found her love of Extended Reality and the possibilities it brings to the world, as well as gardening, cooking, and writing. Anna lives in Interior Alaska with her family.