The Basics: What is XR?

Throughout history, the human race has always strived to innovate; and in the modern era, this is no different. We live in a world filled with technology, where people across the world can talk to each other at the touch of a button, and it’s possible to do groceries without leaving home. In today’s society, technology is developing at a faster rate than ever before – and so new innovations, previously thought to be out of arm’s reach, are opening themselves up to the average consumer.

One of these technologies, XR, has been around for a while now, but is just starting to reach the hands of the general public. By this point, some of you may be asking yourselves: “What exactly is XR, and how can it benefit me?”

XR is a blanket term that stands for Extended Reality – a type of technology that consists of Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), and Mixed Reality (MR). All of these technologies draw upon computer-generated and real-life elements to create more immersive and interactive experiences.

Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality, or AR for short, is by far the most widespread, and well-known technology within XR. As its name suggests, Augmented Reality augments the environment around you, adding digital elements to an otherwise real space. As the most accessible version of XR, AR is easily used on a device such as your mobile phone. Snapchat filters are the most common use of AR, and can change photos in many ways, from distorting the screen to giving someone cat ears – but AR can also be seen in games such as Pokemon GO, bringing fantasy creatures into the real world.

In particular, the travel, retail, and education industries are most interested in the prospects of AR, and it’s easy to see why. When travelling, AR can enhance the experience provided at a location, potentially being able to point out nearby landmarks and give more info about the area. In storefronts, potential customers can be whisked away into an interactive experience, giving them a more insightful and positive impression of the brand. They may be able to change the clothes on a mannequin, or even preview different styles on themselves, even if that particular item isn’t in stock. In education, teachers can create memorable lessons for students by bringing the subject material directly into the classroom, letting students look at diagrams and subject matter up-close.

Recent developments for mobile AR, such as Apple’s ARKit, allow for AR to be used in even more ways, such as being able to place a building or house into an empty lot before it’s even been built, and view it from different angles. You could even bring your phone’s camera up to a restaurant window, and preview what each meal looks like before making a decision – the possibilities are endless. 

Virtual Reality

Unlike AR, Virtual Reality, or VR, is more immersive. Rather than augmenting the world around you, VR completely changes what you perceive, by placing you into an entirely virtual environment. VR comes in many forms, from more elaborate sets that include controllers to mimic hands, and let you move around, to much simpler alternatives, which have you simply looking at your surroundings. The one thing all types of VR have in common is the use of a headset – a screen which you strap onto your face, and can then use to view the world around you.

VR has been used as a tool in many industries, with one of its most well-known uses being its presence in the video game industry. However, this technology has a lot of potential outside of the realm of games, and is especially sought out for use in training and simulation, as well as product design and engineering. Both of these industries benefit greatly from the added immersion, as well as the controlled environment that VR provides.

In VR, it’s possible to be transported to the workplace before even stepping foot in it; users can practice making coffee with a barista machine in virtual reality, so that they can perfect the skill without wasting resources. Mechanics can learn how to fix an engine without the risk of being hurt when they fail, and can keep trying until they get it right. Machines and infrastructure can be built step by step in VR, decreasing the likelihood of mistakes being made on the actual site. By doing workplace health and safety training in VR, it also allows for people to prepare for an emergency without having to be in a dangerous situation. 

Overall, VR is an extremely powerful tool for embodied learning experiences, and has been shown to increase retention rates by over 10% when compared to using a PC. Many applications have been developed for VR to improve its usability as well, such as WebVR allowing for VR use from your mobile phone’s browser, or xAPI being used to record and store data, allowing for a person’s every interaction to be tracked and tucked away for further analysis. 

Mixed Reality

A mix of Augmented and Virtual Reality, Mixed Reality (or MR) is a newer area of XR that is still being explored. It combines the use of a headset from VR with the augmenting of the real world in AR to simulate virtual elements within a real space. The way MR headsets work is by mapping the area around you (basically telling the computer inside that it’s a 3D space), and then using glass lens to display objects within that area.

Mixed Reality, being such a recent innovation, is not easily accessible by the general consumer, and is the only type of XR to not be available on mobile phones. However, industries have still been keeping an eye on it, working with MR developers in the hopes of using this technology on a larger scale in the future. Many fields can benefit from MR and its less intrusive nature – its applications apply much more directly to situations than VR, and have more functionality than AR.

Where before, a team of surgeons may have had to write down their plans for a surgery, they can now reenact it in real-time before the operation, or even display the steps and important details in the operation room. By providing doctors with this valuable information, XR could potentially save thousands of lives that would otherwise be lost. Mechanics can see an outline of what a piece of machinery should look like as they make it, helping them put the pieces together.

There’s hopes that once MR becomes readily available to consumers, that people will even be able to see things in real time as they go about their day, such as how far away their destination is, the latest news, traffic warnings, and even socially oriented information, such as text messages or social media posts. It’s possible that MR could even be used for phone calls, placing a holographic version of the person you’re talking to in the same room.

Mixed Reality is constantly evolving and improving. Microsoft just announced the Hololens 2 – their latest MR headset – in late February 2019. It looks to improve upon their previous product, the Hololens, by increasing the field of vision, having more intuitive gesture commands, and more. The creator of the Hololens, Alex Kipman, says that he envisions a future where Mixed Reality goes beyond a visual experience, and people can feel and interact with holograms on a more physical level. Here’s an interview CNET conducted with the inventor in early March 2019.

Do you have any pressing issues in your business that you feel could be solved with XR? Are you in need of developers that can make those solutions a reality? Contact us!

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