As virtual and extended realities have evolved from a far-off possibility to a present-day industry, the language surrounding the media is due for some clarification. Terms like “AR,” “VR,” “MR,” and “XR” have been used interchangeably — and often incorrectly — to describe everything from immersive mobile games to 360° video and beyond. While each of the following terms refers to media that alters the user’s perception of reality and offers new, immersive perspectives, they each have distinct definitions worth getting to know.
What is XR?
“X-Reality” (XR) is an umbrella term for the ways in which creators are synthesizing virtual and physical worlds, including 360° video, virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality. XR represents a spectrum of emerging technologies are reshaping the way we tell stories, sell products, educate one another, spread empathy, and much, much more. XR imagines a fluid and ever-evolving medium that will, over time, continue to encompass increasingly diverse and sprawling industries, applications, stories, and technologies by blending digital worlds with our physical reality.
360° video is like a traditional video, except spherical. 360° cameras capture 360 degrees of a scene around a camera, enabling the viewer to look around the scene freely from the vantage point of the camera. Because 360° video places users complete and photorealistic environments, it has a high potential for user immersion. This makes 360° video a well-suited medium for tourism, travel, and other location-based footage, as well as interactive, lifelike experiences featuring real actors.
Of all XR media, 360° videos are the least expensive and fastest to produce because they capture the physical environment rather than build a new environment from the ground up. Because 360° images are camera captured rather than computer-generated, however, the medium lacks some interactive elements available on other XR platforms. While users are able to trigger informational popups, choose their own paths of a branching storyline, and transport between locations using hyperports, they aren’t able to pick up and interact with objects like they might be able to in other XR media. 360° video can be viewed on headsets in addition to 2D devices like computers, tablets, and mobile phones using web-based video sharing platforms.
Virtual reality (VR) is a completely interactive, computer-simulated environment. VR technology strives to completely engross the viewer in a digitally-generated reality; the ultimate goal of VR is to transport the viewer into an entirely new, virtual reality, leaving any trace of their physical world behind.
Because VR experiences are built from the ground up, they require a significant investment of time, talent, and money to create and alter once completed. However, the fact that VR experiences are coded from top to bottom allows them to have an enormous degree of interactivity: as if in a video game, viewers are able to walk freely, move objects in the experience, or even fly through the sky — whatever the designers of the experience have empowered the viewer to do. The fact that VR experiences are built from the ground up rather than captured means they are animated rather than photorealistic, which can be a benefit for some experiences and a drawback for others. The animated nature of VR isn’t ideal for empathy-driven experiences, for example, because the viewer may not be able to connect with an animated avatar in the same way they would with a photorealistic person. VR is experienced in headsets that use stereoscopic displays, stereo sound, and head/gaze tracking sensors to simulate a responsive, immersive world.
Augmented reality (AR) refers to media which enhances the physical world with superimposed computer-generated images, video, sound, graphics, and/or text. It’s helpful to imagine AR like an adaptive, interactive filter through which to see the world; rather than constructing a completely new world, it overlays virtual elements into our existing physical reality.
The most commonplace AR product is Pokemon GO, which projects elements from the Pokemon universe through a mobile phone onto a real-world environment. Some experts claim the game doesn’t exactly fall into the category of AR because it doesn’t augment the user’s perception of reality but instead augments a representation of reality that’s displayed on their mobile phone. Regardless, the game stands as an easily understood example of the concept of AR: the addition of coded, computer-generated images, video, and sounds overtop of our real-world environment. The word “overtop” is significant here: in AR, the digital world is like a label slapped on top of the physical world rather than integrated with it. When digital and physical realities are mixed, we get a completely new category of Mixed Reality.
Mixed reality (MR) is a hybrid CGI/physical reality wherein digital and physical elements coexist and interact in real time. Like AR, MR incorporates virtual assets into the physical world. However, MR introduces the additional aspect of interactivity among the physical environment, computer-generated materials, and human input. XR evangelist Charlie Fink has said “we will paint the world with data.” MR represents the interfaces and spatial computing that will make up that interactive, painted world.
Of all the XR media, MR is the least explored. This is because it is the most complex and resource intensive to create. At the present moment, the most common use for MR is military training because of its ability to train and assess viewer’s physical performance in would-be dangerous environments. With MR, viewer inputs like strafing a wall, pulling a trigger, running, and jumping can affect a computer-generated reality: animated avatars can shot and buildings can be destroyed using as a result of the viewer’s real-world actions, as a result of advanced physics engines. Although MR is far from being a consumer technology, it promises to have revolutionary applications for the future of entertainment, labor, communication, and more.
Where is XR heading?
Powered by such nascent technology, the future of XR is necessarily unpredictable. As volumetric imaging and light field technology continue to evolve, creators will find themselves with the tools to conjure never-before-imagined experiences, blurring the lines between the physical and the virtual.
At Pixvana, we know these changes are approaching faster than most are ready to believe. We are proud to be early adopters, envelope pushers, and risk-takers, and seek out partners with similar attitudes. Grounded by experience and expertise, our mission is to wield these fledgling technologies to empower clients, solve business problems, reimagine communication, and challenge the status quo.
Curious about how XR could impact your industry or business? Let’s chat!