Reality check - what’s XR and is it different to AR, VR and MR?

Martyn McDermott

Martyn McDermott

3 min read

Virtual reality headset.

XR isn't a buzzword anymore.

As tech continues to advance and remote working remains a mainstay, XR is the space our human eyes and CGI avatars will inhabit the most.

OK, we're getting ahead of ourselves.

But it's not just coming soon with Zuckerberg's metaverse; it's already here.

With that in mind, there's no time like the present to understand exactly what it is. How does it differ from AR, VR and MR? Strap on your Oculus Rift, let's find out.

So, what in the (virtual) word is XR?

XR stands for extended reality. It describes all real-and-virtual combined environments and human-machine interactions generated by computer technology (and associated wearables).

So what about VR, AR and, most recently, MR?

Well, they all sit on the same spectrum.

VR to AR - the spectrum of immersive possibilities

Over the years, it's been easy to use the tried-and-tested 'AR' and 'VR' to describe this type of emerging tech.

However, AR and VR are fast becoming much more separated on a spectrum of possibilities. With the advent of MR (mixed reality), XR has become the wide umbrella term to capture them all.

Sounds pretty techie, but what do we actually mean by a spectrum of possibilities?

Think of it as a scale covering all the various levels of immersion you can have.

At one end you have the physical (low immersion) world we live in. And on the other side is an entirely digital (total immersion) environment. AR augmented reality, VR and MR all sit on or within this spectrum.

For years, VR has sat right at the upper end - with AR occupying the middle ground. But as technology advances, the degrees of separation between technologies become much clearer.

Now, AR is sat practically at the bottom (low immersion), VR is still closer to full immersion and MR is in the middle.

So far so good?

Reality check: AR, VR, MR and XR in a nutshell

OK, here it goes...

Augmented reality (AR) is a view of the real, physical world with an overlay of digital elements. Think Pokemon Go and its 8 million daily players.

Mixed Reality (MR) isalso a view of the real world with an overlay of digital elements. However, in an MR environment, both physical and digital elements can interact with each other. MR is the middle ground between AR and VR and offers blended immersion. Snapchat filters, virtual makeup and furniture fitting are all examples of how we currently use mixed reality.

Virtual reality (VR) is a fully-immersive digital environment. Today, it's got a variety of real-world applications - from immersive gaming to healthcare training. In the automotive industry, VR engineers and designers experiment with the look and build of a vehicle before commissioning more expensive prototypes.

Extended reality (XR) is an umbrella term that not only covers all of the above but any immersive technology that has yet to be developed. The stuff that blurs the lines between physical and digital environments, anyway.

Speaking of which...

What's the future of extended reality (XR) look like?

Despite all the hyperbole about the metaverse, we're probably still a bit more Lawnmower Man than we are Ready Player One right now.

Well, if this lunchtime interview is anything to go by.

This video was captured when Financial Times reporter John Thornhill "sat down" for sushi with David Chalmers, philosopher and cognitive scientist. Chalmer is the guy who claimed that "...virtual reality is genuine reality".

Hmmm, maybe not quite yet - anyway.

And this isn't the only evidence to suggest there's some work to be done. Nick Clegg complained about the "wretched headset" he had to wear during his interview inside the metaverse. That's a pretty damning indictment of Zuckerberg's dreamchild considering Clegg's Facebook's Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications.

But regardless of this, the future of extended reality is being shaped by AI - a field which is developing at lightning speed. According to Stanford University (as reported in Computer Weekly), the speed of artificial intelligence computation doubles every three to four months. So like all technologies, it's only going to get smoother and more seamless over time.

Just faster, much faster.

As AI becomes more advanced, it will be able to track your actions, learn your behaviour patterns and anticipate your needs. It will allow devices to react to your desires without your intervention. This is what will allow real and virtual worlds to blend more and more seamlessly.

Whether that's the reality you're looking for is up to you.