Extended Reality – Bridging The Virtual and The Digital.

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In real life, there are limitations to every action. We are limited by scarce resources, time deadlines as well as the core underlying laws of Physics that define this world. Extended reality tries to exceed and go beyond these limitations, where the only thing that then prevents us, is our own creativity. This is the main purpose of Extended Reality – to provide a dimension where the unachievable can become achievable, where our own sets of rules can be developed, and yet a place where we can test the limits of the laws already in place in our own reality in a safe and secure manner. There are, however, challenges and issues that have caused this technology to be currently everywhere, but still nowhere compared to its capability.

Before we can go onto the challenges and issues with this technology, let’s first go back and understand what is meant by Extended Reality, identify where this technology is used, i.e. its use cases, and furthermore what lies in the future for this technology.

Extended reality is a term that references to the spectrum of technologies that aim to provide a real or virtual environment. This encompasses established definitions, such as Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR) but is also open to all technologies that lie in between these predetermined establishments as well as any future developments yet to be introduced. These technologies are also ranged in The Reality-Virtuality Continuum as can be seen below.

The Reality-Virtuality Continuum2

Virtual Reality

We can now start to delve into more specific technologies that branch from this general term, starting off with Virtual Reality. Virtual Reality aims to provide a fully immersive experience, meaning that the user is completely enclosed in a simulated, digital environment. It tries to convince the user that they are fully part of this environment and tries to enhance the simulation of this real presence by providing the senses, such as sight, hearing and touch, stimuli to work with. The production of this environment requires both hardware and software. Hardware including components such as VR headsets, omnidirectional treadmills and wearable devices, such as gloves and full-body suits, among others. These devices employ on their own set of techniques, such as head tracking, eye tracking and haptic feedback in order to enhance this experience. The software is the digital content that gets displayed to the user. In order to immerse the user completely into the 3D environment, this digital content must consist of high-quality images and video, as well as be displayed with very low latency (the time delay between a user’s action and the response).

Augmented Reality

Moving on to the next technology that comes under the umbrella term of Extended Reality is Augmented Reality. Augmented Reality is quite distinct from Virtual Reality. Rather than attempting to create an artificial environment to engross the user in, it instead aims to take the already existing physical world and dynamically overlay digital content on top to enrich the user’s experience. This digital content can take the form of images, text, video and animation among many other virtual details. There are many processes that AR is reliant on in order to provide accurate and relevant content to the user. The first of which is to identify the user’s environment. This is done differently depending on the type of AR being used. Marker-based AR depends on distinct physical markers being placed in the real world that act as anchors for the technology. Due to their uniqueness, these markers get easily detected and recognised by AR applications which then are able to display content based around them. On the other hand, Marker-less AR is more versatile as it’s aim is to allow the user to choose where to place the physical objects. This is done through localisation and mapping techniques like GPS, and also with help of image recognition and computer vision as well as depth tracking (gaining distances to objects) to be able to detect real-world objects that are required in order to provide the interaction.

Mixed Reality

Finally, we move onto Mixed Reality. Mixed Reality aims to blend both the real and virtual worlds to produce a new environment where physical and virtual objects coexist and interact. It is also referred to as a hybrid of reality and virtual reality and it makes use of technologies of both AR and MR technologies mentioned above.  They also make use of MR headsets that consist of translucent glasses and provide a holographic experience.

Extended Reality is currently primarily being used in the Gaming and Entertainment Industry, utilising the immersive experience Extended Reality provides in order to reach a new level of participation for the user. Moreover, there are multitudes of other industries that can make use of the capabilities that Extended Reality provides. This includes the Manufacturing and Engineering sector to employ on this technology to train their employees in a safe and secure manner whilst also ensuring they are able to experience the depth that they would receive if they were to do it in the real world. Furthermore, this can be extended to the surgical training for Medicine students and trainee doctors and nurses. Finally, there is one more standout use of Extended Reality among the myriad of others. This is in Retail and Real Estate, where consumers are able to try out products before buying them. They’ll be able to examine the detail of the product with great detail, like one that would be achieved in reality. Below is a chart showing the forecast for the distribution of the augmented and mixed reality market worldwide.

Forecast Distribution of the augmented and mixed reality market worldwide in 20203

We finally stumble upon the challenges of XR technology. First of which is that XR technology collects and processes substantial amounts of personal and detailed data, which must be secured and protected well against a security breach. Secondly, despite there being the presence of developments such as Google Cardboard which are inexpensive and are able to provide a VR experience just through the use of your phone, the cost of providing a full, immersive experience for users is still relatively high. Thirdly, there are potential health impacts XR can have on our lives, including mental health and the negative effects it can have due to eye strain and prolonged use.

Extended Reality is certainly growing in our daily lives, with its potential applications gradually increasing. With every day, it builds a stronger fundamental position in our lives, however yet, there is still some time before it is fullt integrated in all aspects of our lives.


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