Evolution of XR Technologies

Break down the components of XR technologies, from historical innovations to cutting-edge developments, offering insights into the convergence of real and virtual worlds.

Extended reality (XR) is an umbrella term that encompasses all AR, VR, and MR technologies. In this section, we’ll explore the XR or metaverse technologies that act as our gateway to the virtual worlds offered by the metaverse.

Virtual reality (VR)

VR headsets play a pivotal role in the metaverse. Although they have recently gained popularity, they have a history behind them.

Historical overview of VR technology

Before checking out the latest VR headsets, let’s briefly check out the condensed overview of the VR headsets evolution:

  • The Sensorama, invented in 1962 by Morton Heilig, is considered one of the earliest VR systems. The first use case of this pioneer VR system was to act as a multisensory theater. It was a mechanical device comprising a stereoscopic color display, a stereo sound system, a motion simulator chair, fans, and odor emitters. The first simulation of Sensorama was a motorcycle riding through the streets of New York, stimulating the senses through the multisensors installed in it.
Sensorama
  • The first head-mounted display system with 3D-tracking system capabilities was invented by Ivan Sutherland and his student Bob Sproull in 1968. This display system is known as the sword of Damocles. This system tracked the user’s movement in 3D and displayed the updated output on the stereoscopic display system.

  • In 1995, Nintendo released the Virtual Boy, which was the first VR gaming console. It utilized a stereoscopic 3D display but was later discontinued due to limitations such as a limited number of games and monochromatic graphics.

  • Extensive advancements and research were conducted during the 1990s and 2000s. NASA developed a VR system to train astronauts. In 1995, the VFX1 Headgear was released, providing improved immersion with head-tracking and stereo sound. Eric Howlett, in 1999, developed the Cyberface HMD, which featured built-in motion sensors.

  • From 2010 onwards, there were significant hardware-level advancements in the field of head-mounted displays (HMDs). Prior to this, most HMDs were primarily used for research purposes and were inaccessible to the general public due to their higher cost. In 2012, Oculus Rift was launched, which was a huge win for the company and became the most sold unit. This sparked interest in other companies, leading to the launch of HTC Vive and Sony’s PlayStation VR.

Modern VR headsets

Most headsets fall into two categories: Tethered and standalone.

  • Tethered VR headsets serve as the display for a powerful computer that’s connected via HDMI or other USB cables. These headsets can deliver a highly immersive experience due to their wired connection, but are limited to smaller spaces. For instance, Valve index needs to be physically connected to PC whereas PlayStation VR (PS VR) or PlayStation VR 2 (PS VR 2) needs to be connected to Playstation 4 or 5. More example, of tethered headsets include HTC Vive Pro, HTC Vive, HP Reverb G2.

  • Standalone (untethered) VR headsets are wireless and don’t require external resources such as a PC or external sensors to offer a VR experience. They usually provide 6 degrees of freedom (6DOF)6DoF allows users to move forward, backward, up, down, right, and left while seeing 360 degrees.. Examples of these VR headsets include the Meta Quest 2, Meta Quest Pro, and Pico Neo 2.


Meta Quest Pro

Meta Quest 2

Valve Index VR

HTC Vive Pro 2

HP Reverb G2

Type

Standalone

Standalone

Tethered

Tethered

Tethered

Resolution (Per Eye)

1920 by 1800

1832 by 1920

1660 by 1440

2440 by 2440

2160 by 2160

Refresh Rate (Hz)

90

120

120

120

90

Motion Detection

6DOF

6DOF

6DOF

6DOF

6DOF


Advancements in VR technology

Corporations and developers strive to provide the most immersive experience possible in order to make the metaverse space even more realistic. Neural networks are currently being used by Meta Reality Labs to create photorealistic avatars for users. Furthermore, efforts are being made to incorporate smell stimuli into VR sets. For example, the ION is a device developed by Vermont’s OVR Technology, and it sends out odor-based cues via a mask and VR eyewear.

Augmented reality (AR)

Augmented reality (AR) allows computer-generated virtual objects to be superimposed onto the real world to enhance the user’s perception of reality. Hardware to experience AR, such as a head-mounted display (HMD) or a handheld mobile device, is needed to experience AR. HMD-based AR experiences generally require expensive hardware. Therefore, they are less scalable than hand-held smartphone-based AR experiences.  Let’s check out the types of augmented reality:

  • Marker-based AR uses markers or visual cues in the real world to display virtual content. The AR device or app detects these markers through the camera and overlays virtual objects or information onto them. For example, pointing our smartphone camera at an image or barcode can trigger an AR experience related to that image.

  • Markerless AR doesn’t require the detection of markers. Instead, it uses sensors in smartphones or wearable devices to determine the user’s location and orientation. Based on this information, it can overlay virtual content onto the real world. Pokémon Go is an example of an app that uses markerless AR to place virtual creatures in specific locations for players to find. The Markerless AR has the following four subcategories:

The subtypes of Markerless AR
The subtypes of Markerless AR
  • Overlay AR: Used to overlay additional information onto real-world objects.

  • Contour-based AR (or outline AR): Adds additional information to facilitate the user with a task. An example could be an AR application highlighting the boundaries of the roads for the driver, therefore, making them more prominent in an underground tunnel with poor lighting conditions.

  • Projection-based AR: Involves projecting light onto flat surfaces to create 3D imagery.

  • Location-based AR: The AR content is fixed with a specific physical location. The user must be at a particular spot to launch the AR experience.

The following gif depicts a marker-based AR application, Safarnama, which gives a brief historical account of a Mughal Emperor.

Moving from 2D screens to 3D immersive experiences can be challenging for novice users, but XR technologies have demonstrated an exceptional adoption rate over the past years. According to Statistahttps://www.statista.com/statistics/1017008/united-states-vr-ar-users/, “As of 2023, there are 65.9 million VR users and 110.1 million AR users in the U.S,” which supports the notion that XR technology is growing.

Mixed reality (MR)

Mixed reality (MR) is a hybrid reality that allows for interaction with both real and virtual objects, whereas, AR only overlays 3D digital content onto the real world to enhance it. The following image shows where different immersive technologies (AR, VR, and MR) lie on the XR spectrum:

The XR landscape
The XR landscape

Note: The Microsoft HoloLens headset allows us to experience 3D holograms and interact with them using MR technology.