As another year hurtles inexorably towards Christmas, it’s an opportune time to take stock of how far XR has come so far, and what 2020 might hold in stock for building a virtual world we might actually want to live in.
Experiences feel more “real” when they engage several – if not all – of our senses. Most of us are already familiar with haptics from playing video games, where rumble and vibration are creatively used to create a connection between the action on the screen and the gamer. Yet XR designers recognize that they need to think beyond visuals and incorporate spatial audio, touch, and even things such as taste and smell to their immersive experiences. The multi-sensory massage experiences created by the Esqapes Immersive Relaxation Center in Los Angeles have proved the commercial appeal of such concepts, and it’s the sort of thing that gets people like Jeff Bezos rather excited. Yet XR technologies being developed currently could converge in future to make much more sophisticated interactions possible without the user having to even wear any sort of devicesuch as a glove. As researchers continue to push the boundaries of what is possible and companies like Microsoft prototype new haptic devices, we can probably look forward to a near-future where the virtual world will not only look realistic, but also feel real to all our senses.XR designers recognize that they need to think beyond visuals and incorporate spatial audio, touch, and even things such as taste and smell to their immersive experiences Click To Tweet
There are a plethora of potential applications of immersive technologies in healthcare. The advances in haptic technology mentioned above have, for example, enabled much better training applications to be developed for dentists and surgeons, and this type of experiential learning could have a significantly positive impact on patient safety. On the other hand, experts such as Jessica Outlaw also highlight that even as we discover new ways in which immersive technologies can be used to great effect in medical diagnosis and treatment – from detecting the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease to easing childbirth pain – we should also be mindful that the data collection involved will unearth new privacy protection issues which should start being addressed by the industry now.The possibilities of using XR for creating artistic content that could only be accomplished through this medium are tantalizing Click To Tweet
Museums and galleries have been embracing immersive technology as a way to engage new and existing audiences. The Louvre, for example, has been using AR as early as 2015. Yet some of the most exciting possibilities that such tech offers artists is the ability to place their works and reach audiences outside those traditional spaces as well. This is the idea that Apple piloted in its AR[T] walks, where digital works of art were placed around cities such as Tokyo, San Francisco and New York. More than just placing digital objects on random locations like so many Pokemon, however, there is an opportunity to contextualize the cultural significance of place and medium, such as was recently done with the Snapchat filters sponsored by restaurant Chain El Pollo Loco, which celebrate Spanish History Month by bringing erased street murals back to life in the streets of LA. Creativity knows no bounds, and going forward, the possibilities of using XR for creating artistic content that could only be accomplished through this medium are tantalizing indeed.There are a plethora of applications of immersive technologies in healthcare Click To Tweet
As XR hardware and software continue to advance, the inevitable trend is for the interfaces we use to link the physical and digital worlds to virtually disappear. Companies such as Facebook are investigating ways of making that happenthrough the development of what is broadly known as Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI). Where now we associate these experiences with bulky headsets, or think nothing of holding a touchscreen in front of us to unlock a digital augmented element, in future such technology will be embedded in our environment, in lightweight wearables or even contact lenses and implants. Devices currently on the market already track our gestures, facial expressions, and gaze, but in the future our very brainwaves could serve as prompts and commands to let AI-driven immersive systems know what we want, perhaps even before we do.Research shows that experiential learning through immersive education translates into higher levels of engagement and better results in terms of knowledge retention and skills transfer Click To Tweet
For journalists, immersive technologies present an opportunity to reach jaded audiences with important stories, getting through the “news fatigue” factor by leveraging the well-documented “empathy machine” factor of the medium. Yet the powerful reactions that experiences in XR elicit also present important questions about ethics in a space where best industry practices are yet to be established. This is made even more evident by the fact that governments in authoritative regimes have already rushed to embrace these new technologies, recognizing their inherent potential as effective propaganda tools.In the future our very brainwaves could serve as prompts and commands to let AI-driven immersive systems know what we want, perhaps even before we do Click To Tweet
Training and Education
It is no coincidence that some of the most interesting and compelling XR use cases have emerged from the education space. Research shows that experiential learning through immersive education translates into higher levels of engagement and better results in terms of knowledge retention and skills transfer. We have therefore seen a plethora of companies developing products that leverage Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality as teaching tools. Chris Milk’s company Within recently brought out the latest episode in its Wonderscope series which leverages storytelling to teach kids about our solar system, literally bringing it to life in their living rooms. Yet it is in workplace L&D that we see the amazing scope of these technologies unfolding: From train operators to roofing contractors, Navy personnel to police officers, XR has been used by companies from Walmartto Lockheed Martin to prepare people for all manner of scenarios, from stressful job interviews to nuclear warfare.For journalists, immersive technologies present an opportunity to reach jaded audiences with important stories Click To Tweet
It might not have the sexiest ring to it, but this is a huge trend that will be crucial for the long-term rollout of immersive tech. Establishing common practices and protocols so that developers can make content that works across different headsets and platforms is what is going to enable the mass adoption of XR. Which is why we’ve seen companies like Facebook and Microsoft get onboard with the Open XR initiative launched by the Kronos Group earlier this year, which aims to enable precisely this type of seamless integration across devices and will allow companies such as 6D.ai to develop the world-mapping capabilities that will take us a step closer to the Matrix.Standardization is a huge trend that will be crucial for the long-term rollout of immersive tech Click To Tweet
Lighter, Faster, Cheaper
There’s no getting away from the fact that developing immersive hardware is a huge challenge. Stuff that goes on your head has to be comfortable, and preferably should look cool as well as stay cool enough so it doesn’t feel like it’s burning your face off. It can’t be too heavy, but must house enough processing power and battery life to deliver the experiences we’ve come to expect. Are we there yet? Absolutely not. We will surely look back in a few years to the current crop of gear with the same sort of wry amusement as we reserve for the mobile phones of the 80s and 90s. Still, 2019 has seen significant improvements and leaps across the XR spectrum, with HTC bringing out its new generation headset to replace the original VIVE , Facebook scoring a big hit with the Oculus Quest and collaborating with Ray-Ban to develop AR smartglasses, and a number of companies – from independent start-ups to the big boys – bringing their own Augmented Reality glasses into the mix (Snapto Vuzix and Norm to name but a few) and trying to get consumers excited – or at least used to the idea – of wearing these things.2019 has seen significant improvements and leaps across the XR spectrum Click To Tweet
Finding a common language
One of the main difficulties you encounter when talking about immersive tech is exactly what the flip you call it. You know what you’re talking about, since you’ve experienced it, but conveying it to others requires a common language, but where it comes to our industry, experts, and consumers seem equally confused about what constitutes “Augmented Reality” versus “Virtual Reality” or Microsoft’s preferred “Mixed Reality.” “Spatial Computing” is another popular term, as is “Immersive technology” which is my go-to umbrella term. But recently I’ve noticed a strong trend towards adopting “XR” (Extended Reality) as a catch-all denomination that encompasses the immersive spectrum of experiences that includes all of the above. That makes sense, as the industry is inexorably moving towards increasedconvergence between formats that will make it very challenging to draw clear lines between AR and VR, for example. Whether or not it sticks remains to be seen (and I’d love to hear your thoughts!) but I rather like it, hence why I chose to include it as the heading for this top 10.One of the main difficulties you encounter when talking about immersive tech is exactly what the flip you call it in the first place Click To Tweet
One More Thing…
If there’s an elephant in this virtual room, its name is Apple. The company has made no secret of the fact that it believes Augmented Reality is going to be pivotal in its future, and it has released a suite of tools to support developers in creating AR content. But as usual for the notoriously secretive company, official details on its future roadmap are few and far between, which keeps the speculationmill running at a feverish pace. 2019 has seen an endless stream of leaks and rumors based on information such as patents filed and new hire announcements. It seems likely that it’s not a question of whether or not Apple brings out some form of AR wearable, but when. What seems clear is that they refuse to be rushed into releasing something that will not deliver the magic. If they pull it off, however, it could turn out to be the next decade’s iPhone moment.If there’s an elephant in this virtual room, its name is Apple Click To Tweet
This list was originally published as part special editions of the Inside AR/VR daily newsletters which I curate. To be kept in the loop for further ones, please be sure to subscribe to Inside AR and Inside VR
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Alice Bonasio is a VR and Digital Transformation Consultant and Tech Trends’ Editor in Chief. She also regularly writes for Fast Company, Ars Technica, Quartz, Wired and others. Connect with her on LinkedIn and follow @alicebonasio on Twitter.