XR technology is a fascinating world to live and work in. When you write about XR and emerging technology, people ask a lot of questions; some more often than others.
If you have questions that you’ve always wanted to ask a writer in this field, answers to your questions may be found below. If you’re a writer in the space, you may relate to this article in amusing and insightful ways. If you work in XR technology, these are the questions that are really on the minds of people on the street.
What Is AR?
If I were writing this article three or four years ago, “What Is VR?” would have probably been at the top of the list. However, it’s been some time since anyone asked me this question. People seem to (think they) have a pretty solid understanding of what VR is. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case with AR as I am often asked what AR is.
AR, short for “augmented reality”, is the superimposing of digital information or images over the view of the world around you, usually as viewed through the camera and display on your mobile phone. Think about things like Snapchat filters or games like Pokémon Go!.
Interestingly, far more people have experienced AR than VR but far more people are familiar with VR as a term. Is this because there’s more popular media hype around VR? Is it because AR has already become such a part of people’s lives that they don’t talk about AR as a system? That probably depends on the person asking the question.
What Is XR Technology?
In my experience, people only ask what XR is if I accidentally say it first. In my experience, typical users don’t talk about “XR technology” in such terms.
“XR” can use “X” as a variable that can be filled in with “A” (augmented), “V” (virtual), or “M” (mixed). The “X” can also be short for “eXtended” which is also an all-encompassing term.
So, why do industry people use this term if most users don’t? Because it’s a super handy term to use.
A theme in this article is that the line between AR and VR isn’t always clear. Some companies, platforms, solutions, or ideas have one foot in each, so using a more one-size-fits-all term like “XR technology” makes these ideas easier to tackle in a semantic and academic sense.
How Is AR Different From VR?
That people ask what AR is, don’t ask what VR is, and ask what the difference between AR and VR is, suggests that people don’t necessarily have as firm an understanding of VR as they think they do. Any road, as the two main branches of XR technology, thinking about how AR and VR are different is an important pursuit when they’re so often spoken of together.
AR places digital elements over a live view of the physical world, while VR involves an entirely digital view. This doesn’t necessarily mean a “digitally rendered” view like we think of video games as being digitally rendered.
For example, 360 video is (or can be) a VR experience that doesn’t involve any “virtual” elements at all. But, because your experience is immersed within the content rather than a digitally augmented view of the world around you, this still qualifies as VR.
Some people are at least vaguely aware of “pass-through” AR/VR, and that complicates the discussion somewhat. This is partially because these experiences and the average person’s exposure to them is relatively rare, for example, Varjo’s XR-3 enabled Reality Cloud.
This also gets into the realm of “MR,” short for “mixed reality” which incorporates the interaction between the digital elements and the physical elements in the viewer. Right now, this is almost exclusively the realm of enterprise applications.
What Is AR Useful For?
Once we’ve tackled what AR is and is not, the question usually comes up: “What is AR good for?” It can be hard to resist the urge to respond, “Pretty much anything.”
But, it’s true. Thinking just a little ways into the future, it’s hard to think of anything at all that couldn’t be improved by augmented reality. However, at the moment, AR has some limited use in entertainment, more significant use in retail and education, and sees most of its use cases in enterprise.
In enterprise, AR is used for identifying and contextualizing objects, remote collaboration with off-site experts, and assisted visualization in busy or dangerous environments. This last use case is particularly important in the field of emergency response where users might need to understand a situation through or from above environmental hazards.
One day, these and other enterprise-first use cases will find their way to the general public. However, this renaissance will likely have to follow the advent of a convenient, affordable, and powerful AR wearable.
While some consumer-focused AR wearables are on the way, experts agree that we’re a few years out from mass adoption. However, in my opinion, too many XR technology experts think that Facebook or Apple need to put out an AR wearable before adoption will happen. I think that there is enough interest in AR for a producer like Norm, Nreal, or PhotonLens to get the ball rolling first.
What Are NFTs?
NFTs are non-fungible tokens – blockchain-enabled digital stamps that can ensure the scarcity and authenticity of a digital artefact. If it sounds like NFTs have nothing to do with XR technology, it’s because they don’t have to and usually don’t.
However, NFTs are used in the sale and exchange of digital art which can be viewed via XR technology. There are even VR art galleries and auctions in platforms like Spatial that feature viewable and purchasable NFTs. XR art can and did exist without NFTs, however, NFTs give artists (particularly digital artists) huge control over their marketed work.
NFTs can be used for things other than digital art, however digital art is the use case that has been really picked up by media and public interest lately and, to some extent, that has brought XR technology into the spotlight with it.
That isn’t to say that this is a bad thing. NFTs definitely have a place in XR technology, specifically as they enable developer communities by offering a financial incentive for users to populate an experience with virtual objects like unique clothing items for avatars or bespoke settings for virtual events.
The Questions No One Asks
I work in a home office and don’t socialize much. Most of the people that I talk to are industry insiders that I’m interviewing. Even on social media, most of the people that I engage with are XR people. So, on the rare occasion that I do meet a stranger that asks me questions about XR technology, I’m often surprised by what they don’t ask rather than by what they do.
For example, as mentioned above, I’m pleasantly surprised that people no longer ask me what VR is. However, I expected to get a lot more questions about 5G and artificial intelligence and I’ve never been casually asked about the metaverse.
Talking to People Is Good
That’s true for me as an XR technology journalist and for you, whether you’re an industry insider, a developer, an enthusiast, or anyone else.
A recurring theme at XR technology conferences is that XR tech people spend too much time talking to one another and not enough time talking to people in other industries or to users. Over the last eighteen months or so, it’s been easier than ever to silo ourselves in with “the usual suspects” but it doesn’t have to be that way.