What’s in a Name?
Defining Extended Reality (XR) – and Differentiating it from all the Other Realities.
Every once in a while, you need a new umbrella.
As alternative reality technology has evolved, so have the terms we use to describe the various offshoots. They include Immersive Reality (IR), Virtual Reality (VR), and Augmented Reality (AR) – not to mention Mixed Reality (MR), often called Hybrid Reality. Then there is the whole Metaverse thing; a topic for another day.
For everyone’s sake, we needed a new term to cover the different kinds of realities. The catch-all that emerged – Extended Reality, or XR – is now a widely accepted part of the industry lexicon.
That’s definitely progress. But even within our industry there’s some confusion about the meaning of XR and the terms it encompasses. To ensure we’re all on the same page, let’s review:
IMMERSIVE REALITY (IR)
Think of this as the entry level XR solution. What’s potentially confusing about immersive reality here is that every interactive visual display technology big, small, wide or tall can provide an immersive experience using a well-known content development technique called Forced Perspective, which tricks the brain’s perception of depth. Objects may appear to have actual dimensions, not just appear flat.
As a category, immersive virtual reality typically refers to environments that present three-dimensional (3D) content using off the shelf, 2D display technology like large video walls or wrap-around curved screens. Even televisions were curved for a while to create a more immersive viewing experience.
While IR environments are not utterly immersive, at scale they provide powerful shared experiences for multiple viewers thanks to the large screen. They also allow for basic interaction via keyboard/mouse, and can include not so basic gestures, touch, or wand-like pointing device interfaces. An added attribute of immersive reality environments is that they can be flexible in design to accommodate a wide variety of use cases.
AUGMENTED REALITY (AR)
This technology overlays computer-generated images onto the physical world around you – augmenting your personal reality. Images can be viewed via a head mounted display, or they can be overlayed onto the display of your phone or tablet. Remember when Pokémon enthusiasts were using their cameras to hunt for animated characters hiding in parks and other public spaces?
When comparing traditional virtual vs augmented reality, the key distinction to be aware of is that AR technology can present 2D or Hologram-like 3D content depending on the viewing device. Augmented images can be placed or projected onto objects or appear in physical spaces – in small or large scale, to wondrous effect – but all this is superimposed over your reality. Augmented reality technology, in its current form, cannot present data at ultra-high resolution and/or across a wide field of view that IR or other technologies can.
A chief benefit of augmenting the real world vs. replacing it is that our brains have a much easier time processing the experience. We’re less apt to become disoriented, dizzy, or in some cases ill. So even though the visuals aren’t as enveloping as those in a VR experience, the technology enables more prolonged (and, in a sense, more immersive) engagement than some of the other interactive display technologies.
AR is also finding its way into far more commercial applications e.g., construction management, facilities and equipment maintenance, and many more!
VIRTUAL REALITY (VR)
VR takes immersive imagery to the next level. In virtual reality environments, users enter a new, computer-generated world with complete depth perception, affording a greater sense of presence with the computer generated content. that affords a greater level of interaction with one’s surroundings. Left- and right-eye perspectives create stereoscopic 3D images that have realistic, hologram-like depth just the real-world objects.
VR provides a unique level of visualization and interactive potential. Users can be transported inside a molecule, a building being designed, or almost any realm, environment, or model of their making.
The VR experience is enabled via a range of technologies. They include head-mounted displays, large-scale video walls, and fully immersive, custom-configured CAVE systems that are so enveloping that a full body sense of presence because you see yourself, not an avatar. Additionally, you can move freely in the immersive environment.
Motion tracking technology monitors a user’s head/hand/body position and re-renders the virtual images to match the user’s motions in real time. Look under, over, around objects like they are real. A range of tools are available to allow intuitive interaction using drills, hammers, you name it the limit is your imagination
MIXED REALITY (MR)
In MR environments, the physical and digital worlds are merged. Users experience instinctual, organic-feeling interactions with digital technology, but in a virtual setting.
By contrast, augmented reality takes place in the physical world, with information or objects added virtually as an overlay. In mixed reality environments, cameras, sensors, and AI-enhanced technology process data about a space and then use that information to create digitally enhanced experiences.
Ever heard of a “digital twin”? A digital representation of an intended or existing real-world physical product, system or process, if you use SnapChat you have a digital twin, it’s an MR environment that allows for entertainment, simulation, integration, testing, monitoring, maintenance and other functions.
Imagine a digital factory environment that matches a real-world space in every dimension, they exist and are being used daily to test manufacturing techniques, fit and finish, emergency preparedness training, the list goes on and on. You can simulate endless workflows in advance of building the actual facility.
Use cases for MR range from design, education and professional training to entertainment, military training, remote working, functional mockups, healthcare procedures, research – and much more.
HOW WE VIEW EXTENDED REALITY
At Mechdyne, we see XR as a means to expand your knowledge, reality, and experiences. We see it as a tool to gain insight and understanding. We see it as a catalyst to widen your lead in the marketplace, whether through new discoveries, accelerated development, or making your organization an exciting place for new talent to join.
More than anything, we see XR as central to our mission as an organization. Just take a look at our logo. We are a company dedicated to “Enabling Discovery.” Providing extended reality solutions – from VR to AR, IR and MR – enables us to do just that, applying whichever technology will help clients meet their goals.