What Is XR (Extended Reality)?

XR describes virtual, augmented, and mixed-reality technologies

Extended reality sounds cutting-edge and futuristic, and in a way it is. But you might be surprised to learn that you've probably used XR without knowing it. That's because it's really just a blanket term to refer to various types of reality.

What Does XR Mean?

XR stands for extended reality. It summarizes a group of technologies—VR, AR, MR—that let you experience and interact with virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality environments.

This means XR is really just an umbrella term for those experiences. Whether you're talking about a virtual reality headset or an augmented reality mobile app, what you're referring to is extended reality.

How Does XR Work?

Here's an overview of these three technologies:

Virtual Reality

This is arguably the most well-known XR term. Virtual reality is just that: a virtual view of the world, meaning it's a fully simulated 3D environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly physical way. If you're after a truly immersive experience, VR is where you want to be.

Virtual reality is often used for gaming and entertainment, but its other applications include training, education, and design.

A headset is used for VR experiences. It interrupts your normal vision to display the virtual environment, tracks your head movement, and usually includes controllers or other input devices so you can interact with the virtual world much like you would the real world.

Augmented Reality

Augmented reality covers the real world with computer-generated images and other information. Unlike VR, these virtual elements don't take over your whole vision, so you're able to see and interact with the real world and the virtual items simultaneously.

AR applications include education, training, entertainment, and marketing.

You can use AR through a smartphone or a headset.

Pokémon Go augmented reality game

David Grandmougin / Unsplash

Mixed Reality

Mixed reality blends the real and virtual world in a way that lets you interact with both simultaneously. It's similar to AR, but it allows for a greater level of immersion and interaction with the virtual environment.

MR systems typically use headsets to track movements and position in the real world and to display the appropriate virtual information.

Microsoft HoloLens is one example of a mixed-reality headset.

Applications of XR

Extended reality has a wide range of applications, including:

  • Entertainment: VR and AR are used in a variety of entertainment applications, such as video games, movies, and live events. Check out these VR travel experiences for some examples.
  • Education and training: XR technologies are used to create immersive learning experiences that allow students to explore and interact with virtual environments and simulations. Think VR flight lessons before manning the cockpit.
  • Healthcare: Extended reality can be used in the healthcare industry for training, surgical simulations, and therapy.
  • Manufacturing and design: XR technologies are used in the manufacturing and design process to visualize and test products before they're built. Blueprints can be scaled down to the size of a table and examined by designers for inaccuracies before implementation.
  • Marketing and advertising: AR is used to create interactive and immersive marketing and advertising experiences. For example, a brand could use AR to let customers "try on" a new line of clothing or makeup, or visualize how furniture would look in their room next to their other décor.

Are Smart Glasses XR?

Among VR, MR, and AR are related terms like headsets and smart glasses. VR, and often MR and AR, are experienced through a headset. Smart glasses (at least some models) can fall into the AR category because they display virtual information next to real-world information, similar to AR smartphone apps. This makes smart glasses a form of extended reality.

  • When was virtual reality invented?

    The technology surrounding the ideas mentioned above began to emerge from research started in the 1960s and 1970s. As progress on miniaturing components continues, the hope is these devices will be lighter for when you wear them over your head (VR headsets) and smaller for when you wear them on your face (augmented reality glasses). New models of headsets are coming out each year with improvements.

  • How does virtual reality work?

    While each device will have different capabilities, they consist of sensors and screens working in conjunction to display images to your eyes based on your body’s position and where you’re looking. The sensors include motion detection and accelerometers, and the screens use high-resolution displays and stereo projection so the correct image is displayed to the correct eye, giving a 3D effect.

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