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Why You Should Embrace the Extended Reality Continuum

Why You Should Embrace the Extended Reality Continuum

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Emerging mixed reality (MR) technologies and virtual reality (VR) are afroth with specialized terminology. Beyond MR and virtual reality, this technology space includes terms such as augmented reality, augmented virtuality, extended reality, spatial computing, wearable computing, ubiquitous computing and metaverse. By the time you read this, there may be more.

Any discussion of “digital realities” requires a commitment to defining terms and contexts. The overabundance of terms can be laboriously exhausting to understand and erode the excitement and interest of curious people outside of innovators and early adopters.

MR and VR are destined to merge into a single entity and are already slowly converging. We need to take this into account when talking about the technology space by being concise when referring to the general and the intentional and when diving into the nuances.

Luckily, we already have a way to tame the jargon and don’t need to expand the already heavy lexicon.Extended Reality (XR) is the consensus term for “all combined real and virtual environments and human-computer interactions”.

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The Extended Reality Continuum

The reality-virtuality continuum describes a space of digital reality with both reality and virtual reality endpoints. Mixed reality is the spectrum between the endpoints. From a contemporary perspective, there are clear boundaries between reality and MR, and reality and VR. The MR spectrum is naturally and irreconcilably fuzzy and without well-defined boundaries. Reality and VR are discrete states, but MR is a nonlinear gradient.

Extended reality is the spectrum from MR up to and including VR, or from another perspective, it is the reality-virtuality continuum excluding reality. We can call this subset of the reality-virtuality continuum the extended reality continuum.

Advances in technology and improved experience design will reduce the significance of the differences between MR and VR, making even the most sophisticated users unaware of the differences. Classifications, as defined by the XR continuum, will only make sense to designers and developers.

The impact on the design of the experiment

It’s interesting to imagine that the distinction between MR and VR isn’t always as straightforward as it is today. We find that early examples of immersive digital experiences are fluid and not distinctly MR or VR. This duality raises questions about the impact of being both MR and VR on the quality of user experience.

For the sake of exploration, let’s assume the hardware and software exist to support both high-quality MR and VR experiences. The form factor is immaterial, but to help the imagination, consider Geordi La Forge’s visor (Star Trek: The Next Generation), any helmeted character in star wars (Darth Vader, the Mandalorian, stormtroopers), or an implanted device (contact lenses or prosthetic eyes) as in black mirror “All Your Story” (S1E3).

Several questions immediately arise when considering the impact of multidimensional extended reality on experience design. What are the advantages and disadvantages of having an experience with multiple postures in the XR continuum? Can a single experience go back and forth successfully between MR and VR? Can a single experiment successfully cover multiple stops in the MR spectrum? How do we design MR experiences that are real augmented reality? Where in the XR continuum is the best experience for my users and their problem space?

Here are some of my early speculative thoughts. Designers must declare to be MR or VR and stay true to this posture, but this thinking must be questioned and validated. Switching between MR and VR, if possible, is likely to be in well-defined ways, or move so slowly that the user is unaware of any changes. However, trying to be both MR and VR in the same experience is probably a design pitfall.

For now, it is impossible to do anything but speculate and experiment. However, we can make educated guesses using the past wisdom of designing interactive experiences.

The impact on hardware

Device hardware will also take on this dichotomy. The most recent wave of standout devices, such as Oculus, HoloLens, Magic Leap, and smartphones (iPhone and Android), have a strong MR or VR lean. Every device optimizes to enable one type of experience or another, but not both, and for good reason. Supporting both creates many technical challenges and can significantly affect production costs, in addition to the previously mentioned experience design challenges.

However, that is changing and future device iterations will support both MR and VR experiences. Devices like those of Shadow, Lynx and Meta are screen-based, with passthrough camera capabilities. Passthrough means the device uses an external camera to capture what the screen hides, allowing the user to “see through the screen”. These devices can support MR and VR experiences with high resolution.

The Magic Leap 2 (ML2) can darken the outer lens to create a not-quite-opaque view of reality. This feature is more about improving the visual quality of rendered content and less about a meaningful attempt to enable VR experiences. MR devices fall far short of supporting a quality VR experience due to a limited field of view and an inability to completely block out the physical environment.

It’s easy to imagine (and hope for) a generation of XR devices – any device capable of supporting any experience along the XR continuum – not devices solely dedicated to MR or VR . Unfortunately, this may take several years and likely require different form factors than what we have today. Nevertheless, there will always be a market for dedicated MR and VR devices. As technologies become commoditized, low-cost or solution-optimized hardware will continue to individually support either VR or MR.

Points of convergence

Adopt XR as a general anchor for discussing MR and VR technologies, as it best fits general expressions of MR and VR. The term supports discussions with a wide audience and within the creator community. There is a cognitive benefit in simplification for everyone. The Extended Reality Continuum is a basic structure for technical or detailed talk that designers and developers need. Settling on a simpler lexicon allows us to focus on much more interesting things.

Simplifying and merging terminology helps us move beyond “Can we do this?” phase of an emerging technology and explore the experiences the technology can enable. Designers and technologists must prepare for the full spectrum of XR experiences. Now is the time to explore the XR continuum and establish the experience design principles that will define the future and success of the medium.

We are beginning what I find to be the most exciting and exuberant phase of any emerging technology.

Jarrett Webb is Chief Technology Officer at argodesign

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