Innovation

What is… XR?

A monthly tech explainer series about the technology shaping our world today, from the Garage.

By Jeff Wise — April 7, 2022

According to a certain thirtysomething tech billionaire, it’s only a matter of time before we’ve all relocated to a digital multiverse where we’ll float around as legless Playmobil figures. Whether or not he’s right, the technology necessary to make that happen is already here—and it’s ready to do a lot more. Extended reality, or XR, allows us to enter an immersive virtual space so we can visualize information and explore environments with unprecedented vividness and immediacy. While it’s best known for use in games and entertainment, it supports a long and growing number of practical applications, from learning to manufacturing to healthcare. All told, the fast-growing XR market is expected to top $77 billion by 2025.

Illustration by Eric Chow

How it works

The term XR actually embraces three different approaches. There’s virtual reality, (VR) where users don goggles that relay a slightly different video feed to each eye, creating a 3D effect. Then there’s augmented reality, (AR) where users see virtual objects overlaid on top of real-world imagery; and mixed reality, (MR) which uses algorithms to blend digital illusions with the real-world environment. (Imagine a virtual mouse disappearing under a real-world table and emerging on the other side.) The latter two, AR and MR, can be experienced through glasses, goggles, or via smartphone apps—the breakthrough example of the latter being Pokemon Go, which in 2016 briefly sent a wave of users scrambling in a real-world scavenger hunt to “catch them all.” 

 

Related: What is microfluidics?

 

The a-ha moment

An early progenitor of the VR headset was built in the 1960s by engineers from the Philco Corporation. The device incorporated a video screen for each eye and included a tracking system connected to a camera. It wasn’t until the ‘90s that computer technology had progressed to create high-resolution graphics and display them in a consumer headset. But these early efforts suffered chunky graphics and headache-inducing lag. Not until the 2010s did headsets become available with software that eliminated optical distortion and low-persistence screens to reduce blurring. Even as gear improved, consumers were reluctant to be seen in public wearing bulky XR headgear. (Remember Google Glass?) But as technology has improved, headsets have gotten lighter, the PC engines driving them have gotten more mobile, and visuals are less migraine-inducing. User adoption is on the rise and XR applications are proliferating, but there’s still plenty of room to grow. Steam reports that while the number of users with VR headsets on its site has doubled in two years, they still only account for 2% of gamers on the platform. 

What is it used for now

XR is often used not as the primary focus of software but as a bonus feature to spice it up. Do a search for an animal like a shark or a tiger on your smartphone, for instance, and you can see an animated AR rendering that seems to put the creature right there in the room with you. Or visit a furniture retailer’s app and use AR to visualize what a virtual desk or bookcase will look like inside your real-life room  before you buy.

While most consumers will find some popular gaming titles are now available in VR, the business world is eyeing commercial applications, such as training and procedural skills. By putting trainees inside a realistic virtual setting, XR can immerse them in experiences that would otherwise be too dangerous or expensive to reproduce for practice. HP is deploying its VR and AR technology in industries as varied as manufacturing, public speaking, and for research on veterans suffering from PTSD.

How it might change the world 

Tech-watchers expect to see fast growth and a host of imaginative applications for XR as it goes mainstream from retail stores to the factory floor to healthcare to travel and entertainment. With AR, brick-and-mortar stores could offer shoppers a path “painted” on the floor to guide them to the items they want; while in VR, doctors will carry out virtual house calls and make diagnoses. Soon switching back and forth to make purchases or interact with friends in places that only exist digitally will feel familiar and comfortable, as more real-time 3D compute in a much smaller volume becomes possible. In 10 years, XR might be so widespread, so seamless, and so immersive that we'll be able to do almost everything we can do in real life in a realistically-rendered virtual one, even if it doesn’t exist in the physical world.