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What does extended reality even mean?

Adora Nwodo
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You know how they say “tech” in movies is more advanced than the real world? Well, I can’t tell you if that’s going to change or that the real world will catch up soon. However, I can say that innovation in technology has never been more exciting, and that you should join the wave if you’re still thinking about it.

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In this article, I will explain extended reality (XR) and share a few use-cases for XR in our environment, but before I do that, I would like to re-iterate a few concepts that have become popular over a few years (just in-case you weren’t familiar with them just yet).

Augmented reality (AR)

Did you ever try to play Pokémon GO? Well, that’s a (relatively) common example of an augmented reality experience.

AR is a way to add computer-generated graphics onto video streams of the physical world. When playing Pokémon GO, you see the world around you through your phone camera along with other “digital” elements in the game scene. Elements can be anything ranging from game items to Pokémon, but through your phone, they sort of look like they are in your environment.

Other AR use cases:

  1. E-Commerce: Having a user view the digital version of an item that they want to purchase (e.g., a couch) in the real-world (e.g., their living room) before they buy it.
  2. Fun: Creating AR Bitmojis on Snapchat, Gaming, Story-telling with AR apps, and more.
  3. Navigation: Google Maps’ AR Navigation feature, AR GPS apps, etc.

There are a lot of other use cases for AR, but in order to not make this really long, I will stop here. Augmented Reality can be experienced through mobile apps, AR glasses, Microsoft HoloLens, and the Web.

If you want to get started on building AR experiences for multiple devices, there are SDKs and specifications that allow you to do so (e.g., Vuforia, WebAR, ARCore, ARKit, etc.)

Virtual reality (VR)

As opposed to AR, where digital elements are put in your world with the help of a device, virtual reality lets you step into a fully computer-generated 3D world by wearing a headset. In this virtual world, you will be able to explore and interact with the virtual objects around you. A very common use case for VR is gaming. Others include:

  1. Advertising: A few brands now use VR to create fully engaging campaigns for their audience. An example is Coca-Cola’s VR sleigh ride.
  2. Sales: Imagine wanting to buy a car or a house and you’re able to take a VR tour so that you can look around. Yeah, you can currently do that too.
  3. Tourism: As a traveler, VR could allow you to experience tourism in a more exciting way.
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If you want to get started on building VR experiences for multiple devices, there are multiple SDKs for Unity and Unreal Engine that allow you to ​do so. There’s also the WebVR specification that allows you to create VR experiences on the Web.

Mixed reality (MR)

Mixed Reality allows us to blend our physical worlds and digital worlds together. In other words, with mixed reality, physical & digital objects can co-exist and be interacted with inside the same space. An example of a mixed reality headset is the Microsoft HoloLens. This is different from augmented reality because humans can interact with​ digital elements.

True mixed reality experiences are created when computers, humans, and the environment interact seamlessly.

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Since MR blends both physical & digital worlds, the two worlds are on both ends of a spectrum called the mixed reality spectrum. On one side of the spectrum, we have the physical world where humans, animals, trees, and other physical elements exist. On the other side of the spectrum, we have the digital world where digital elements exist.

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There are four environments that currently allow you to build MR experiences: Unity, Unreal Engine, WebVR + Babylon.js, and DirectX.

Extended reality (XR)

This article has already covered augmented, virtual, and mixed realities. Extended reality is the term used to collectively describe these immersive technologies. All of these technologies add something to the realities we already experience, hereby “extending” them in some way. It could be by taking us to a different reality or putting elements into our current reality. Regardless, these technologies create new experiences for us.

If you want to start building XR experiences, you have multiple options to choose from. If you want to do this on the Web, you can do so with the JavaScript you already know. SDK’s for mobiles & headsets exist too, and you can get started with Unreal Engine, Unity, DirectX, and more!

Are you currently using XR to build solutions for fun or business? If it’s something you’d like to share, I’d be happy to know.

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