XR — Extended Reality is an umbrella term for augmented, mixed or virtual realities, but you already knew that, didn’t you? Excellent. I’m not talking about the first virtual reality device, Sensorama (1962), a visionary gadget that stimulates the visual, auditory, haptic and olfactory senses. I’m NOT even talking about the early augmented reality experiences invented in the early 90s by the US Air Force. In short, we know enough about extended reality technologies and they’ve occupied a significant part of our imagination for more than 50 years. You can find more here and here.
So, let’s start at 2019. Why is humanity in love with XR? (I love this rant)
Humans have been writing for close to 10,000 years and we have written a lot. We have painted on walls, scratched clay tablets, written on paper and typed on computers/smartphones/tablets. These media have been critical for exchanging knowledge and enabled our greatest achievements like Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Einstein’s Relativity, frugal interplanetary satellites and CRISPR. With this power, we have been catapulted from a species using stone tools to being on the verge of interplanetary exploration. However, notice this medium has always been a 2-dimensional plane, never anything in 3-dimensions. Why? While we’ve always imagined what extended reality would be like, until now technology was always the limiting factor. Not anymore, we are at the cusp of 3D visualisation and building on this visualisation revolution will make the next 10,000 years will transform Homo sapiens to Homo deus.
Alright, but why now?
Early 21st century (today) is the first time technology (specifically, the abilities to process large amounts of visual information and to transport them over large distances in a matter of seconds) has enabled 3D visualisation through portable head-mounted devices (HMDs). You no longer need to cart around a massive CPU or a heavy-duty laptop to run XR experiences. A smartphone or head-mounted XR device is enough. At the same time, a tiny SIM card gives you access to superfast 3G/4G internet to explore virtual worlds from any corner of the planet in a jiffy. This confluence is fantastic and it will only get better over the next 3–5 years with Moore’s law doubling HMD processing power, and a combination of 5G & Edge Computing providing better infrastructure to deliver superior quality experiences on sleek HMDs.
Granted the time is now, but what do we have today?
We have completed one full generational cycle of standalone , fully-immersive virtual reality headsets (hardware) with some of them doubling up as partial augmented reality headsets as well. And, we have completed a full product lifecycle for rudimentary and rich multimedia augmented reality headsets and many of them are aiming for higher field of view (FOV). Hardware engineers are working from both directions to achieve a single, unifying wearable device that functions as both AR and VR (collectively called XR) device.
On the software front, we find the ecosystem is highly siloed with a multitude of OS options (Android forks, Linux kernels, Windows-based and I’m guessing there will be something from the Apple stable) and each of these operating systems work with specific hardware. For e.g., you can never run an Android app on Hololens or run a Windows application (.exe file) on a Linux-based headset. As a consequence, the tools you use to build these applications are different, get installed differently, setup & interfaces vary and finally the upgrades will drive you nuts. There are some softwares that export in multiple formats, but that carries unnecessary baggage to support all versions of (for example) Android with multiple screen sizes. Does this look wrong to you? It should and it is wrong.
That’s not how it works.
Silos. Considering the current state of affairs and the potential of XR, why should you care as a customer (as an individual customer or a technology evangelist of a business)? Let’s take the example of a low hanging fruit, visualisation of furniture. You’d love to see how that beautiful leather couch looks in your living room and depending on the gadget (smartphone, tablet or HMD) you make a choice on the experience (AR/VR). While you are at it, quickly try out the ‘look’ of the couch in combination with other products inside a living room. Wunderbar, just have to download a different app, try a different gadget or both. In the best case scenario of using Android-based VR headset and an Android smartphone, you need different apps to achieve this experience anyway.
As a consumer, I would probably try once and disregard the technology saying it’s immature (even though it is not). As a technology evangelist in a company, it’s sacrilegious to force customers to jump loops, and far worse because you are unable to tap into the tremendous potential and possibilities of these technologies. And things go downhill when you try to scale this solution for post furniture deployment maintenance. If your technicians want to use XR for routine maintenance, cannot be the same app or the same device or the same software/hardware combination. It does not make sense to invest in new capabilities again and again for every new use-case. And finally, the hardware ecosystem is rapidly evolving and each hardware generation is far superior to the previous generation. As a consequence, your hardware demands will continue to change, your software application will change and the costs will spiral out of control.
What’s the way out? Be silo-agnostic.
Work at layers that eliminate the need for consumers to change hardware or software just to access your application. Be cloud-hosted, that eliminates the need to be a downloadable app. All maintenance and upgrades are done in one location and all users immediately have access to the new version without any explicit app update routine. Your cloud application integrates well into your ERP and other backend systems, and in addition, the same experience works on a head-mounted VR device as well as on a smartphone or laptop. Cloud is the future, and your infrastructure will be ready for subsequent generations of XR devices. Accessing XR cloud applications is as easy as it sounds, just use any internet browser (Chrome, Safari, Firefox or Edge) and let the application take care of the rest.
It’s avant-garde time.
Let’s dwell for a moment on subsequent generations of headsets. They will be sleeker, less awkward and will pack more hardware for a punch. But, the hardware can only go so far. You cannot have an NVIDIA 10 series or high-end Core i7 processors with insane RAM in your pocket. To retain the level of quality we experience in XR, much of the computing will happen on the cloud or edge and HMDs will be pure display devices capable of rendering wide angle stereoscopic 3D. And this gets better when new-age visualisation capabilities is meshed with computer vision based artificial intelligence. To achieve immersive capabilities of the future, start using Extended Reality capabilities today and be an avant-garde, adopt XR at your workplace or in your day-to-day activities. The push for adoption will drive startups to push the boundaries of XR and create innovative mechanisms of solving complex challenges.