XR Trends: What is extended reality?
Reality-altering technology represents some of the fastest-expanding technology being utilized across multiple industries, from entertainment to healthcare. This tech is increasingly being used to improve entertainment value and patient outcomes. Below, we explore the fundamentals of extended reality and some companies pushing the boundaries of reality with their innovations.
What is extended reality?
XR, or extended reality, is a general term for any enhanced perception technology. Essentially, it is a placeholder term that can be used in any digital reality situation, including AR (augmented reality), VR (virtual reality), or MR (mixed reality).
Extended reality seeks to create or improve existing visual stimuli by leveraging computer technology and wearables to, quite literally, expand upon the reality we know.
Types of extended reality
Broadly speaking, there are currently three different types of XR: AR, VR, and MR, which we'll expand on below. Of course, as technology advances, they are unlikely to be the only implementations of this technology.
AR (augmented reality)
AR has been used in mobile applications for several years. One notable example in the past decade is the mobile game, Pokémon Go. While leveraging a smartphone camera to view the world around the device, the application uses augmented to project Pokémon characters onto real-world scenery.
Augmented reality does not require external peripherals in the same way as virtual reality, which is covered below. AR instead "augments" or changes the real world around us through a screen, much as the name suggests. However, some companies are working on personal technology that will make greater use of AR, which is limited in its current applications. Apple's planned smart glasses are one such example.
VR (virtual reality)
VR takes immersion a step further than augmented reality, creating a virtual world for users to explore remotely. This technology is rapidly gaining popularity in video gaming communities.
Current technology utilizes a VR headset with a wide-angle viewing window. The headset typically combines motion sensors, accelerometers that determine movement and speed, proximity sensors, gyroscopes, and other emerging technology. These components interpret the wearer's movements, translating them into actions in a game world or other applications.
Popular VR headsets include the Playstation VR, Oculus Rift, and HTC Vive. Innovations in these areas aim to enhance user immersion and experience with features such as finger tracking and haptic feedback.
MR (mixed reality)
Mixed reality (MR) blends the digital and real world, allowing users to interact with real and virtual objects around them. The simplest way to imagine this emerging technology is to picture the countless sci-fi films in the entertainment industry that have seen actors and actresses interacting with large, digitized hologram screens that appear to float in the air.
While augmented reality implants digital assets into real-world environments, it relies mainly on existing mobile technology and is highly limited in its applications by comparison. Mixed reality, on the other hand, seeks to blur the lines between the real and digital worlds, allowing humans to interact with both in real-time directly.
Extended reality use cases
VR and its associated technologies have often been viewed as a concept that belongs in the gaming world. However, while gaming applications and virtual worlds are seemingly vast, other industries have important use cases.
Healthcare and education are two industries in which demand for extended reality technologies is growing, which explains the increase in VR equipment uptake. According to Statista, 4.46 million virtual reality headsets were shipped in 2019. In 2022, 14.19 million headsets have been shipped, and the figures for 2023 are projected to grow to 18.81 million.
Below, you'll find some key examples of companies working to advance our application of XR technology, not just in gaming but in healthcare delivery, education, and training.
Extended reality in gaming
XR is a diverse field with many practical applications. To date, much of extended reality technology application has been focused on futuristic gaming, with virtual reality headsets selling in their millions. Thanks to the development of the VR headset and advances in gaming software, XR has captured the gaming community's attention and imagination, as gamers can place themselves directly inside their favorite virtual worlds.
- XR Games: XR Games combine both AR and VR technologies, producing games across multiple platforms that include PC, console, and mobile. They're focused on accessibility; entertainment is a vast industry, and everyone should have the same rights to access. XR Games has been named in countless awards, including many VR industry awards, and they're the company behind games tied to instantly-recognizable names like "Zombieland."
- Evernever Games: Evernever Games produces a range of family-friendly titles that bring a new edge to traditional board gaming. Neverboard seats users around a virtual table and offers a vast range of group games. Users can play casual games with their friends and family no matter how far apart they are geographically.
- CaptoGlove: CaptoGlove is transforming traditional wearable designs. Most existing virtual reality systems rely on handheld controllers, but the CaptoGlove is a form-fitting glove, much like any regular glove worn in winter. For users to enjoy the most immersive and unintrusive VR experiences in the future, seamless designs like these are critical.
- Owlchemy Labs: Rather than focusing on hardware development, Owlchemy Labs produces popular VR games and experiences. They're the company behind hit games already enjoyed by thousands of users, including the highly popular "Job Simulator" and "Vacation Simulator" titles for PC and consoles.
- Improbable: Based in Britain, Improbable describes itself as a "metaverse technology company" whose work includes technology such as Morpheus. Morpheus drives virtual environments with low latency, and high user counts, enabling developers of both games and social experiences to bring their work to their audiences. One notable example saw AleXa fans enjoying a remote, virtual concert with the performer.
- TILTLABS: Based in India, TILTLABS works in XR, games, and virtual production. Their technologies have already been applied across multiple industries, including content creation, automotive retail, manufacturing and industry, geo forecasting, and real estate.
Extended reality in healthcare
Healthcare is another field that is seeing benefits from AR deployment and a virtual environment. The technology has implications for patient care and screening, and there is growing interest in using XR to help train doctors, nurses, and other future medical professionals through immersive, real-life simulations and physical and virtual worlds.
- Medical XR: Medical XR has several projects centered around different outcomes. For example, BabelVR seeks to allow virtual interaction with three-dimensional imaging, while StrokeVR hopes to give researchers better insight into the damage caused to the brain by strokes.
- Proximie: Proximie straddles the divide between healthcare and education applications for XR technologies. Through the Proximie platform, clinicians can virtually join any operating room procedure, gaining access to real-time peer learning in any corner of the world.
- SentiAR: SentiAR's CommandEP solution gives surgeons a real-time, three-dimensional interface that can be used for cardiac ablation procedures. Catheters and other mapping technology feed data into the platform, which constructs an accurate representation of a patient's heart.
- ImmersiveTouch: ImmersiveTouch transforms 2D medical images into fully three-dimensional, virtual models that can be used for surgical planning and training. Surgeons may interact directly with the model using a combination of VR and MR devices.
- EchoPixel: EchoPixel's software platform is the first turnkey solution capable of constructing a digital representation of a patient's anatomy from medical images. With this tool, clinicians will be able to diagnose, plan, and coordinate treatment before undertaking any surgical procedure.
Extended reality in Education and Training
XR is also finding a home for itself in education and training. The technology is being used to upskill workers, making rare or challenging tasks available and repeatable, and it has the potential to impact all levels of education, from preschool to college. While XR-enabled gamification of learning can improve student engagement (examples include spelling lessons that take the form of hide-and-seek games and shirts that are mapped to provide information about human anatomy), the technology also has the potential to offer new experiences and possibilities to people with disabilities.
- 3DBEAR: 3DBEAR's ARVR Simulations Repository brings together numerous vocational, career, and technical education-oriented experiences that can be assigned for student learning. The company offers lesson plans that span from pre-K education to upper secondary learning, with subjects covering Math, Science, Coding, and other core topics.
- DYNEPIC: Dynepic's DX Platform combines multiple XR training applications and tools, placing them in a central repository. Today, their technology is a USAF (United States Air Force) requirement, which highlights the importance and relevance of XR technology in modern and future training applications.
- ELearning Brothers: This company delivers VR training solutions for employees in various industries. CenarioVR allows employers to build virtual reality training simulations, de-risking the traditional training process in higher-risk industries.
- Moth+Flame: Moth+Flame provides learning experiences for enterprises across multiple industries. Featured by the New York Times, its software has shown better retention of information and faster learning, which is ten times more cost-effective than traditional, classroom-based methods.
- Codon VR: CODON is building a virtual reality platform that seeks to simplify abstract concepts into simple training scenarios. Users are introduced to a subject via a guided, interactive lesson before being presented with challenges and having access to peer-to-peer collaborations.
- Discovr Labs: Discovr Labs has been described as a "VR field trip," providing a virtual platform for teachers to deliver lessons across K-12 or college-level classes.
What is the future of extended reality?
While the XR market only appears to have seen significant interest over the past several years, the technology will likely see rapid investment and innovation. According to MarketWatch, global XR production is anticipated to grow by 46.5% between 2020 and 2026.
There's no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic spurred much of this growth, with much of the population restricted to their homes and longing for a connection more impactful than a telephone call or videoconference. This has likely been driven further by employers looking for solutions to a workforce that is now largely remote working around the globe, and the entertainment industry will follow to keep up with the changing landscape.
The future of XR and immersive technologies will likely focus on innovation and improvement in many key areas that have been covered above, including:
- Gaming: Streamlining peripherals and wearables will ensure that wires or clunky VR headsets no longer bind users. Additionally, expect improvements in immersive experiences with real-time, haptic feedback, fine-tuned finger and hand movements, spatial audio, and support for higher resolutions.
- Healthcare: Continued improvements are expected in numerous areas, from diagnosis to treatment and surgery. Aside from surgical and training benefits in healthcare, XR has already shown promise in other areas, including delivering mental health therapy remotely.
- Training and Education: The pandemic and its associated lockdowns caused an enormous disturbance for students and educators worldwide. The silver lining, however, is that teachers reported a better understanding of new teaching techniques and becoming more innovative, among other benefits.
Looking to the future, XR technology seems poised for widespread adoption, thanks to the implications it has for access to services and the promise it shows around healthcare delivery and entertainment. And such a future is likely not that far off, especially when one considers the trajectory of other significant technological advancements like, say, the iPhone, which was first introduced just 15 years ago. So, while these may be early days in terms of implementation, chances are it won't be long before we're looking back on them in similar amazement – just through VR glasses and living in real and virtual worlds.