Extended reality (XR) is the overarching term used to describe employing technology to blend real life and the digital world. XR includes all the machine-human interfaces beyond the physical realm (reality) such as augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), assisted reality (aR), and virtual reality (VR).
- The XR Venn diagram with “AR” encompassing assisted and augmented reality (Source: Softweb Solutions)
While the term “XR” has been around since the 1960s, only quite recently has it been attributed to the blending of reality and digital screens. As technology becomes more advanced, XR becomes more of a spectrum, with the technology fitting somewhere between total reality and virtual reality.
A range of devices makes up XR, and these are used by consumers and in many industries for entertainment, safety, training, or productivity purposes. The XR market was valued at USD 26.05 Billion in 2020 and is expected to reach USD 463.7 Billion by 2026. On the consumer side, this growth will be driven by gaming, movies and television, retail, tourism, and medical devices. Business use cases will be driven by the medical field, manufacturing, military use, the industrial sector, and tourism.
- The XR spectrum, as depicted by RealWear.
VR is XR at its most extreme, it completely immerses the user in a digital world, often using a computer-generated environment with scenes and objects that appear to be real. The device usually covers a portion of the face, mainly the eyes, and offers a virtual 360-degree view of the simulated world. Coupled with the device over the eyes, sound is often involved through earphones and the user may hold additional devices in their hands to increase the level of interactivity. VR is very popular within gaming and entertainment in the consumer market, but it is finding traction within the business community in industries such as healthcare, construction, engineering, and the military.
With the move toward remote work being driven by the ever-present COVID-19 pandemic, some companies are taking the use of VR even further. For example, Facebook recently announced the launch of an application that allows their employees to have virtual meetings using VR devices - creating the impression that the attendees are all in a room together.
- A person wearing a VR headset (Image: pexels.com/@sound-on)
AR blends the virtual and real worlds by overlaying digital objects and information onto the users’ view of the physical world. AR differs from VR in that it does not immerse the user in a “new” world through the use of a headset device, but rather adds information to the view on their mobile device, television screen, or computer screen.
One of the most successful AR applications in recent years is the Pokémon GO mobile game. The game was downloaded over 500 million times in 2016, the year of its release. The game consisted of players looking at the real world through the camera on the mobile phone and digital Pokémon characters being overlaid on the screen. The aim was to catch as many of these characters as possible.
- A person playing Pokémon GO (Image: unsplash.com/@davidgrdm)
Even if you have never played, or seen anyone play, Pokémon GO, the chances are good that you may have still interacted with AR. It has become almost ubiquitous on mobile phones, adding a hat or glasses to a selfie you have taken or putting a filter over your Snapchat (or maybe you have seen your kids do this one). While AR is big in the consumer space, it is increasingly finding its way into business applications. Some use cases that employ AR include employee training, industrial field service, retail, design and creative, customer experience, and even interior design.
MR is an extension of AR that allows real and virtual elements to interact in an environment. The user can also interact with these virtual elements, such as moving them around or spinning them by gesturing with their hands. Microsoft was one of the pioneering companies behind MR, particularly with the HoloLens device which allows users to see and manipulate 2D and 3D digital objects within their view of the real world.
- Doctors using the HoloLens 2 (Image: Microsoft)
Devices such as the HoloLens 2 are worn on the head, with glasses covering the eyes. The glasses are transparent with digital objects being overlaid on the view of the physical world. Since MR is a rather new technology, there are not yet many use cases, but it has seen adoption in industries such as healthcare, manufacturing, and education.
Due to its higher processing abilities and the quality of the information it displays, the HoloLens 2 performs well as a high information density system. However, it has been shown to not work as well in harsher environments, where lighting or ruggedness is an issue, particularly those that are outside.
Assisted reality (abbreviated to aR) is also a newer addition to the XR spectrum. Like mixed reality, assisted reality is an extension of augmented reality, with a few notable differences to both. One of these differences is that aR is primarily hands-free through the wearing of a headset, whereas AR usually requires the holding of a device such as a mobile phone. The headset worn for aR does not cover the eyes but is rather presented to the user in the form of a small tablet just to the side of the head. This means that the user does not have their view of the real world obstructed, minimizing distraction. Here is the first main difference between aR and MR: where MR is a digital-first, real-world second reality, aR is a real-world first system.
This lack of distraction is what makes aR suited to the industrial space where distractions can lead to serious mistakes or accidents. The leaders in the aR space are RealWear with their HMT-1 and HMT-1Z1 devices. These devices are worn on the head, with glanceable information just to the side of the head. As these devices are built to be used in the industrial space, they are a lower information intensity system than the Hololens 2 but can withstand higher environmental intensity situations that pose a risk to the device or the user.
- A worker wearing an aR device (Image: RealWear)
Assisted reality has numerous benefits as the XR of choice within the industrial sector by not changing what the user is seeing, but rather adding to it. This contributes to safety, better training, and increased productivity. Assisted reality can go even further when you introduce custom-built voice-controlled apps that enhance the capability of the device.
XR is a growing phenomenon within the consumer and B2B markets, with the market expected to accelerate its growth through the 2020s. Technological advances mean that the way we digitally alter reality is getting more and more immersive and advanced. VR and AR are very popular within gaming, entertainment, and social media but are growing within the business world as those aspects become more entrenched in everyday life.
MR and aR are growing within the business world, with each having its strengths to improve a variety of commercial activities. Wearable devices such as the HoloLens 2 and HMT-1 are making physical work a more digital experience and the use cases where they will be essential are increasing.
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