With the line between virtual and tangible being continuously and progressively blurred, Extended Reality (XR) is the new frontier of tech, according to some. XR is actually an umbrella term for immersive technologies — those that integrate virtual and real-world elements — such as Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality (VR, AR, and MR respectively). These technologies use our senses (most often vision) to either enhance the world around us or provide an alternate, simulated world for us to experience.
Though many people often interchange the phrases Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, they are marked by a few main differences. VR shuts out the real world by completely replacing the user’s field of vision; every component being viewed or interacted with is entirely virtual. AR, on the other hand, overlays digital information onto the physical landscape so that what’s being viewed is really there but is enhanced through technology.
A person using Google Cardboard or the Oculus Rift to look around a virtual art gallery would be utilizing VR, since they are removing themselves from their landscape and stepping into an entirely different one. A person using a smartphone filter that adds facial hair or glasses that are responsive to movement and expressions would be utilizing AR, since they are viewing their true surroundings but with added digital features. In other words, VR digitally replicates a real-life setting, while AR layers digital components onto the real world.
Mixed Reality, as the name suggests, is a combination of AR and VR, wherein real-world and digital objects interact. MR technology is still in its infancy with Microsoft’s HoloLens being the most well known MR apparatus. In MR, the physical and virtual worlds interact, and users can interact with them as well. As Intel’s website explains, MR “provides the ability to have one foot (or hand) in the real world, and the other in an imaginary place. While AR enhances a user’s perception of the real world, MR can blur the difference between what is real and what is not.”
While the difference between AR and VR is fairly clear, the line between AR and MR is harder to place for most people. One reason for this is that MR is still a young technology and therefore there aren’t as many common examples to refer to. MR headsets deliver a believable experience by combining gesture, gaze, and voice recognition software: imagine you are standing in your kitchen and when you turn to look at the fridge, there’s a virtual shopping list “posted” on the door; you could say, “Add carrots,” and the item would show up at the bottom of the list, or you could wave your hand and the whole list would be erased.
Since this technology is so responsive it takes a lot more processing power to enable a mixed-reality experience than it does for VR or AR. While this is what makes MR intriguing, it is also the technology’s biggest hurdle currently. Some developers and telecommunications experts believe that the upcoming 5G revolution, which will make it possible to transmit vast amounts of data in an instant, will help make MR more powerful, sophisticated, and ubiquitous.