Extended Reality (XR) is one of the many “-R” abbreviations used in the immersive technology space these days. With so many similar terms floating around, it’s easy to get confused. Fortunately, “XR” is a sort of umbrella term that probably includes any other “-R” term out there.
What Is XR?
The difficulty with the definitions comes from the “X.” Depending on who you ask, it might not stand for anything. Some people use it as a placeholder, like a variable in a math problem. Some even pronounce “XR” as “X Reality.” Others use XR not to mean “any reality” but to mean “all reality” for example to discuss immersive technology generally rather than one at a time. People in this camp are more likely to say “XR” as “Extended Reality.” People have their preferences between the two “XR” uses but both can be handy in different situations depending on what you’re talking about.
A lot of companies getting into immersive activations want to do it because they’re flashy. They might know that they want to do something with immersive technology but might not know whether they want to use AR, VR, or MR. Here the first use, X Reality, can be fitting because they’ll only use one form of immersive technology but they don’t know which one.
A lot of academics, journalists, and technologists use “XR” as “Extended Reality” because they’re not just talking about AR or MR or VR – they’re talking about all of these technologies at once. This use is particularly helpful when talking about solutions like Varjo Reality Cloud which operates more like AR for an on-site user and more like VR for remote users.
So, what are the differences between the other R terms? Why might it or might it not be important to specify how they are being grouped?
The “-R” Abbreviations in Immersive Technology
VR, AR, MR – in all of those familiar abbreviations the “R” stands for “reality” and that’s true for “XR” as well. But, with XR being an umbrella term, it’s easier to understand if you also have a firm grasp on the other Rs as well.
AR – Augmented Reality
Augmented reality places virtual elements into a user’s view of their physical surroundings using a camera and either a transparent lens or a live-view of a camera feed often through a mobile phone. Most modern virtual reality headsets have a similar function called “passthrough” but this particular technology is still largely experimental except on professional-grade devices.
The virtual elements in augmented reality activations aren’t usually responsive – they add value to the user’s surroundings, or the user’s surroundings add impact to the virtual elements. For example, in the AR lookbook that ROSE developed with KHAITE, users could see models walking in their actual surroundings or view virtual representations of items in their own homes.
MR – Mixed Reality
Mixed reality is similar to augmented reality in that it all starts with the user’s environment. However, the virtual elements in an MR experience are much more intelligent and interactive. They may interact believably with one another or with the environment. They may also collect and display information on the environment from connected devices or onboard sensors.
Mixed reality requires a lot more computing power both to drive the interactive virtual elements and to display them in a meaningful way. As a result, most mixed reality experiences are made available exclusively on dedicated mixed reality devices like Magic Leap or Microsoft’s HoloLens.
GigXR’s Insight series with ANIMA RES uses a HoloLens headset to display detailed and interactive anatomy models in a healthcare and education solution. If more than one person has a Hololens they can both join that session, or one presenter with a headset can stream or record a session to remote users without access to headsets.
VR – Virtual Reality
Virtual Reality is entirely virtual. The user’s natural field of view is entirely replaced by computer-rendered settings and elements, potentially including other users represented as avatars.
That doesn’t mean that everything in a VR experience has to be built from the ground up. For example, products like Microsoft Mesh can place a live volumetric capture of an individual within a virtually constructed environment. Similarly, some VR experiences take place within 3D images or videos.
VR is popular in gaming and social applications but is also used for remote collaboration, design, and training. In fact, 3lb XR and 3lb Games design enterprise training simulations and other solutions as well as games, cross-pollinating one another to make intuitive and immersive enterprise solutions as well as fun and challenging entertainment experiences.
The Acronym of Possibilities
Whether XR means one unspecified form of immersive technology or all forms of immersive technology together depends on who uses it and in what context. It’s also one of those terms that end users of the technology don’t really use at all – it’s primarily used at a relatively higher level of discourse.
With this knowledge, you’ll probably be able to tease out what someone means when they say “XR” and if you don’t it’s okay to ask them to clarify. This is an emerging technology with an emerging dictionary of terms and everyone being on the same page is more important than appearing to understand nuanced specialist terminology.
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