A whole range of realities
XR, VR, AR, and MR explained
Immersive technologies keep breaking down the barriers between the real and virtual worlds, allowing us to experience things that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.
Even better: these technologies are settling more and more into the commercial and industrial sectors, revolutionizing the way we do things. Businesses are exploring ways they can leverage these new realities in order to solve problems, support new initiatives, improve their daily operations, refine their workforce and, in the long run, better themselves.
This accelerated development may seem a little puzzling at first. Although spatial computing related terms — Extended, Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Reality — are often used interchangeably and share common features, it’s their differences that make their strength. Each of these technologies present distinct characteristics, limitations, and benefits which, when applied to the right context, hold substantial power. 🌠
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Extended Reality (XR)
Extended Reality, or XR, is an umbrella term for all immersive technologies. The "X" in the acronym is a mobile variable that stands for any letter, while "Extended" refers to the fact that spatial technologies extend the boundaries of reality; either by combining the real and the virtual, or by creating a whole new reality. Thus, the term XR encompasses all technologies that merge a certain degree of immersion with computer-generated content, and human-machine interaction.
Of course, the gaming and entertainment industries were early adopters of these technologies; but now, many other fields benefit from them, such as education, engineering, safety and security, defense, healthcare, sports, design, and more.
Virtual Reality (VR)
Virtual Reality, or VR, is the most widely known of spatial computing technologies. A VR experience takes place in a 100% digital world; it offers a 360-degree view and allows us to move around, watch occurrences, and manipulate objects, all while being entirely computer generated. This type of experience tricks our brain into thinking it’s physically present in a completely different universe, which allows for the most realistic simulations.
Meetings, collaboration, education, visualization, training — as limitless as your own imagination, Virtual Reality can do just about… anything.
For example, we could use it to create a virtual meeting space, bringing videoconferencing to a whole new level; the full benefits of face-to-face interactions, without the hassle of commuting! It can also replicate any real-life environment for virtual tours; quite useful for tourism, event, and real estate industries. The health industry also benefits greatly from Virtual Reality, notably for therapy and rehabilitation purposes; two excellent use cases would be our immersive stress reduction program in collaboration with Northwell Health and LCI LX, as well as our mental health support project in collaboration with the Philippe-Pinel Institute.
From an educational standpoint, VR can not only enrich learning by making it more engaging, but can also give students a perspective that would otherwise be impossible to achieve. One thinks in particular of students at Case Western who, while studying human anatomy on a 3D image, gain an unobstructed view of organs that would be hard or even impossible to examine on a real corpse. Lastly, VR proves to be particularly useful for various types of hands-on training — especially those that present significant logistical challenges, or take place in highly hazardous conditions. Two use cases come to mind: our synthetic onboarding project in collaboration with the Royal Canadian Navy, where virtual training turned out to be an ideal solution to avoid wasting a ton of resources, and our simulated training project in collaboration with Hydro Québec, where realistic virtual scenarios allow trainees to learn how to respond to dangerous situations without putting their lives at risk.
Augmented Reality (AR)
Augmented Reality, or AR, refers to a virtual interface that overlays the real world. Unlike VR, we are not isolated from our surroundings; rather, they are central to the experience. We are able to fully interact with the physical objects around us, all while benefiting from computer-generated contextual content (usually images, text, or animations), which supplements and enhances reality.
These information overlays can prove useful in a myriad of fields — from marketing, to manufacturing... and everything in between! First off, the opportunity to engage directly with prospective customers using Augmented Reality offers immense potential for marketing purposes. We can also think of more practical applications, such as real-time language translation, navigation, guides, and step-by-step instructions. Another interesting use case (which, incidentally, we’ve explored in collaboration with Desjardins) would be real estate material identification for insurance purposes, thanks to an easy-to-use and accessible interface.
Real-time assistance is another fundamental benefit of AR. We could, for example, get help from a colleague who, despite the distance, would physically appear in front of our eyes; as if he were really there. An augmented interface could also provide crucial information for any ongoing work. A practical example of this concept would be our predictive maintenance project in collaboration with Bombardier, which allows aircraft technicians to locate defects on huge pieces of equipment, in record time, thanks to a program that automatically sends suspect coordinates to a floating AR interface.
Mixed Reality (MR)
Mixed Reality, or MR (also referred to as Hybrid Reality), is halfway between the two previously mentioned realities. It’s a more interactive type of Augmented Reality, where the real and virtual worlds merge together as a whole. In Mixed Reality, artificial and tangible coexist, and form equal parts of the experience. Digital objects are anchored to the physical space in which they are placed, and thus, can adapt to their surroundings and be manipulated as part of them.
Because of its similarity to AR, MR can share many of its use cases — although, usually bringing its own edge to them. 🌶️ A technical support interface for a factory, for example, could be updated in real-time as the technician performs various repairs on a piece of equipment.
Other cases can be more specific to what defines Mixed Reality. For example, a virtual prototype could be laid over a real model; and, since Mixed Reality technologies allow digital additions to integrate seamlessly into real objects, potential modifications could be studied closely before even spending a single penny on production. A room’s decor — not only colors and textures, but also objects and furniture arrangements — could be visualized interactively, all while adapting to the things already in place. Along the same lines, an MR system could allow architects, building inspectors, or construction workers to locate a virtual structure to the correct scale, and even to venture inside it in order to visualize the results, conduct observations, and highlight potential issues.
When multiple realities intertwine
Despite their differences, it is not impossible to combine these technologies for collaboration purposes. Augmented and Mixed Realities are particularly booming these days; they merge the real and virtual worlds more harmoniously than ever, and could help push virtual collaboration towards uncharted grounds.
Synchronization from an Augmented Reality headset to another already shows great promise — simply by allowing two people from completely different places to share an interface and manipulate the same digital object, in real-time.
The collaborators are in completely different contexts; they can each draw information from the world
around them while visualizing the same object, overlaid on top of their reality using AR.
The combination of Virtual and Mixed Reality is also an appealing possibility. Think of a remote training context where the instructor would handle a piece of equipment on-site, while the student would put on a Virtual Reality headset and be transported to the scene. As the lesson progresses, the maneuvers performed by the instructor could be transmitted in real-time to the student’s Digital Twin, ensuring a true-to-life training… completely remotely!
The two collaborators seem completely disconnected physically, when in reality, they are
collaborating very closely in the same space… well, almost.
It is no longer even necessary for all parties to acquire complex pieces of equipment to enable collaboration. Technological advancement is cool like that! Take a trainee having to perform manipulations in an electrical box, for example; by putting on Augmented Reality glasses, not only could he have access to an interface overlaying his equipment, but he could also see his superior appear before him… And the latter would only need a desktop computer to start the process!
By the way, we just want to highlight the fact that StellarX already allows VR and desktop users to collaborate seamlessly. Soon, utter and complete compatibility will be knocking at our doors... 👀
A collaborator helps their colleague using Augmented Reality, without needing to connect
via complex equipment himself.
. . .
So, basically: VR places the user in a completely digital environment; AR overlays digital elements on top of reality; and MR anchors digital elements to reality, in addition to overlaying them. Therefore, Mixed Realities are always Augmented, but the opposite is not necessarily true! As for XR, it includes pretty much all that’s related to immersive technologies… the ones we know, and the ones that are yet to discover. 🔎
One thing’s for sure: each and every one of them has its own unique features, and the constant discovery of new combinations helps us continuously refine the way we live, work, and collaborate.
Now, knowing the difference between the various types of spatial computing is one thing; applying them to your specific context is another. You may be looking to improve your onboarding processes? To boost communication within your teams? To save money, time… or both? Whatever your intentions, immersive technologies probably hold the answer. Simply book a consultation, and we’ll gladly guide you through the process!
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