– Extended reality: a step beyond virtual, augmented and mixed reality
In the last years, we have witnessed how virtual reality is starting to be more integrated into our daily life. Games (including some hyped up games like Pokémon Go), Snapchat and Instagram face filters and effects, virtual art exhibitions (such as the Van Gogh Alive interactive exhibition) or 360º VR headsets used as marketing stunts have been introducing augmented and virtual reality to a worldwide mass audience.
But, is there any actual difference between Augmented and Virtual Reality? And lately, you might also have heard about Mixed Reality and Extended Reality. What does this all mean?
What's the difference between Extended Reality, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and Mixed Reality?
Extended Reality (XR) would be the umbrella term given to all computer-generated environments that merge virtual and the real world and so it encapsulates all of the rest of them: Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), Mixed Reality (MR), and everything in between.
To be precise, Augmented Reality (AR) refers to the technology in which computer-generated virtual elements (graphics, videos, sounds and animations) are overlaid on top of our real physical environment. It typically requires the use of a camera but most of the ones in current mobile phones can do the trick. Snapchat and Instagram filters have made simple AR features wildly popular.
In Virtual Reality (VR) we would be experiencing a 360º immersive experience in a virtual world through the use of a headset.
Mixed Reality (MR) implies a step beyond the previous two: it's not just the virtual elements the ones interacting with the real environment but also actions and elements in the real world modify the virtual reality. This means full integration of real and virtual worlds, as they both interact with each other.
How will we be using Extended Reality in the near future?
Altogether, Extended Reality will bring new opportunities for many different industries in coming years. Beyond entertaining and gaming, XR will provide new opportunities for education, medicine (in doctors' training through VR practice scenarios and disease diagnose), retail brands (allowing consumers to interact with new products in new ways of shopping), real estate (you will be able to virtually visit properties), architecture and interior design... to name a few. The workplace will also be dramatically transformed by XR technology, particularly manufacturing industries and engineering, as they will be able to use vast quantities of 3D MR data from simulations and make virtual spatial annotations the same way we add notes to a written document today. Training newcomers arriving at a company will also be easier with the use of AR overlays that will showcase whatever information is needed in processes and equipment.
Up until now, immersive virtual experiences have been mostly individual but new mixed reality developments are working towards achieving a shared experience, where you can enjoy XR along with other people.
Many of the experiences would also be location-based, where actions are adapted to a particular setting to enhance a distinct experience, thus, avoiding generic scenarios.
In the already virtual world of the world wide web, it looks like AR is going to be integrated soon into browsers and websites without the need for special apps.
Regarding devices, smartphones, AR glasses and VR headsets will soon merge into one single XR wearable rolling all of the previous features into one device. TVs and other kinds of smart screens will equally be made redundant. Mixed Reality technology and devices might take a bit longer to fully develop (Microsoft Hololens is a first step in the way) but they will inevitably follow.
How will Extended Reality interact with other emerging technologies?
We must also prepare to see XR's possibilities being enhanced through the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and the connection to the Internet of Things (IoT). Machine learning working in combination with XR technologies will result in better recommendation engines for online shopping but will also perfect medical diagnoses, as the human-machine interaction processes are improved and data compilation grows. Medical device development will be made more efficient too, speeding up product testing and the gathering of feedback.
XR will also have a significant impact on the way we cruise through the streets and public spaces. If you consider that using your smartphone to navigate roads while driving your car is a hassle... Well, rejoice! Soon, AR will bring all the info you need directly onto your windshield. Autonomous driving will surely take advantage of these navigation features too.
AR will also change the way we navigate large indoor spaces such as administrative buildings, hospitals, airports and train stations, office buildings or malls, providing accurate directions. In large physical stores, AR solutions will assist customers in providing an extra layer of tailored information and customer care through chatbots. The AI processing of the cumulative user experience data gathered in all of these places will hopefully reveal new ways to improve processes, customer experience, urban planning and public transportation.
Soon to be worldwide implemented, 5G superfast mobile data networks will also be crucial for the mass adoption of XR technologies.
Trends for Extended Reality in 2020
Today, the current XR scenario is quite similar to the introduction of the Internet in the '90s. People are starting to experiment with Extended Reality as a service in special locations, the same way first Internet users flocked to PC cafes before the technology became more affordable and was widely introduced in most homes. XR is likely to follow the same path. Mainstream adoption of XR technologies might still take a decade but we will be seeing rapid growth in the next 4-5 years. By 2022, the Extended Reality market is likely to be eight times bigger than what it is today.
Oculus Quest VR Gaming headset, Xbox 360's Kinect, Apple ARKit, Android AR Core, HTC Vive Pro, Magic Leap and Microsoft Hololens are some of the currently available XR devices and AR/VR developers and artists are already experimenting with them.
While gaming and entertainment have been key to the development of XR technologies up to now, in 2020 businesses and education will start to tackle the many and exciting possibilities of virtual, augmented and mixed reality technologies.