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  • Conrad Rebello

Exploring Extended Reality (XR): How Frontrunners Bridge the Gap of Real-world Possibilities

  • Extended Reality unlocks entirely new realms of interactive experiences.

  • XR leverages a variety of advanced technologies like displays, trackers, and sensors to create immersive experiences.

  • XR is changing the way organizations function, leading to the emergence of new methods of collaboration and training, and even optimizing product lifecycles.

  • Sephora's use of XR-led technology is a prime example of how brands cater to their audience by providing a more engaging and interactive customer experience.

  • Physiological effects on users warrant attention, and burning issues like deepfakes and cyber harassment need to be addressed.

  • XR, coupled with Generative AI, is poised to take personalization to a whole new level.


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Tech titans aren't content with merely riding the waves of innovation – they're determined to make the waves themselves. Rather than passively following trends, they actively shape them, setting benchmarks & integrating cutting-edge technologies. This is done with a single end goal in mind: to deliver experiences that redefine entire industries. These digital frontrunners understand that maintaining a powerful brand requires more than just catchy slogans and surface-level gimmicks. Among these transformative forces, extended reality (XR) stands out as the ultimate game-changer, poised to revolutionize how we interact with the digital world. 



What is Extended Reality? The Synergy Between AR, VR and MR 


Extended Reality (XR) is an umbrella term that encompasses aspects of Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR). By embracing XR, organizations are opening up entirely new realms of immersive, interactive, and deeply engaging experiences. This advancement has blurred the lines between the physical and digital worlds in ways we can scarcely imagine today. Firstly, let us understand each term in simple - 


Virtual Reality (VR) :

Virtual Reality (VR) blocks out everything around oneself and replaces it with a virtual environment, immersing the user in a computer-generated world. 


Augmented Reality (AR) :

Augmented Reality (AR) overlays digital elements onto the real world you see, like adding information or graphics to the view of the real world.


Mixed Reality (MR) : 

Mixed Reality (MR) merges the real world and the virtual world; wherein one can see both, and virtual objects can interact with real-world objects.


XR promises to reshape industries as diverse as retail, healthcare, education, and entertainment. Imagine trying on virtual clothing that seamlessly blends with your physical environment, or stepping into a fully realized virtual classroom where geographical boundaries cease to exist. The possibilities are endless, and these frontrunner organisations are leading the charge.



Technologies enabling XR in the Metaverse:


Extended Reality (XR) weaves together a captivating tapestry of technologies to create interactive experiences. AR experiences are further enriched by overlays, which seamlessly integrate digital elements like text, images, and 3D models into the real world.


The types of technologies enabling XR are listed. Pointers include head-mounted displays, immersive optical tracking, high speed network, and haptics

1. Head-Mounted Displays (HMDs): 

HMDs are wearables in VR and AR. VR headsets completely block out the physical world with high-resolution displays, creating a fully engaging experience. AR glasses, on the other hand, are typically transparent which allows users to see both the real world and the digital elements. Advancements in display technology like OLED and microLED are constantly pushing the boundaries of resolution and refresh rates, ensuring a smooth and visually stunning experience.


2. Immersive Optical Tracking: 

Optical tracking uses cameras and hi-tech sensors embedded in HMDs or other devices to track the position of the user's head and controllers. This allows for precise control over movement within VR environments. Beyond user tracking, XR experiences often benefit from understanding the surrounding environment. Sensors like GPS and LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) can provide data on the user's physical location.  


3. High-Speed Network Accessibility : 

XR-related content demands extremely high levels of bandwidth connections. This is usually only possible through a 5G or WiFi connection. These advanced technologies ensure live interaction at the necessary speed through minimal delay. This eliminates the current burning issue of ‘lag’ and creates a seamless experience for users.

 

4. Haptic Technology Driving Innovation:

The sense of touch adds another layer of immersion to XR. Devices such as gloves, suits, or controllers provide users with sensations corresponding to their actions within the XR experience. Development in haptic technology is exploring various methods to simulate touch, including vibrations, electrical muscle stimulation, and even ultrasound.



How XR is reshaping Immersive Technologies for these leading companies:


Remote Work & Collaborations:

After the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the adoption of virtual interaction tools played a major role. In addition to virtual meeting spaces where individuals have the feeling of being in the same room, VR technology enhanced the way meetings are held. Microsoft Mesh tackles the challenges of remote work by creating a more immersive and collaborative experience.  Through virtual avatars and shared spaces, Mesh fosters a sense of presence, replicating the feeling of being in the same room with colleagues. Live interaction and spatial audio enhance communication, while the ability to work with 3D content facilitates coordination on complex projects.


Data Visualization and Analysis:

Traditional visualisation techniques like the use of charts and graphs are growing outdated as they are not able to convey the intricacies between variables effectively. XR allows for the creation of spatially intuitive 3D visualizations. Analysts can manipulate variables, adjust parameters, and observe the instantaneous impact, facilitating a deeper understanding of cause-and-effect relationships and enabling accurate scenario planning. Teams can gather in a shared virtual space to discuss manipulated data visualizations & form inferences. 


XR Powered Product Development:

The product development cycle is undergoing a paradigm shift due to progress in XR. Now, organisations can generate more than just physical or 3D prototypes of products. This fosters faster time-to-market due to rapidly possible iterations. XR also enables companies to quickly test out these prototypes through interactive simulations. This in turn helps in understanding the possible risks and helps in mitigating them in the earlier stages itself. Designs are effectively optimised before they reach production which helps in saving major resources which would have otherwise been lost if a traditional approach was chosen. 


Immersive Learning Methods :

The power of XR creates interactive learning experiences for training programs. Traditional methods of training often cease to capture the essence of work. This hyper-real nature allows learners to "learn by doing" in a risk-free environment. This cost-effectiveness also extends to its ability to train geographically dispersed learners. Applications have been in function across multiple industries, especially in healthcare and education which are at the forefront of utilizing XR. Developments in areas like haptic feedback and motion tracking will further enhance the realism and effectiveness of XR training experiences.



Applications of XR:


Sephora's take on XR & AI - 



Traditional online makeup shopping can be a struggle. Customers can't try on products, leading to hesitation and returns. Physical stores can be overwhelming with vast choices and limited help. Sephora tackled these challenges head-on with a digital approach that seamlessly blends online and in-store experiences. Sephora's innovative mobile app leverages cutting-edge AI tools. Their biggest solution for online beauty purchases is the AR-powered virtual try-on feature. This allows users to experiment with makeup in real time, virtually applying different shades and finishes to see how they'd look. Sephora uses this tool to scan a customer's skin and recommend foundation and concealer shades that perfectly match their skin tone. It goes beyond foundation, offering virtual try-ons for lashes, brows, and even hair colours. Sephora's commitment to the digital experience extends to immersive makeup tutorials. Customers can access virtual environments where they can learn tips and tricks from beauty experts. This innovative approach has been a huge success, with over 200 million virtual shades tried and over 8.5 million visits to the virtual artist features.



Risks Brought Forth by XR Technologies:


Just like any other technology, XR is not free from risks and poses a bunch of them.

 

1. Data Collection: 

Similar to other advanced technologies, XR systems often collect extensive user data & are heavily powered through it. This includes biometric information including eye movement and heart rate. If not properly secured, this data is vulnerable to breaches, exposing users to potential identity theft or exploitation. 


2. Inappropriate Environments:

XR environments can be difficult to monitor, leading to the risk of users encountering harmful or inappropriate content. This can expose users to a toxic mix of hate speech, violent extremism, and predatory behaviour. However, the lack of oversight isn't the only concern.  Similar to the toxic cultures that plague modern video game chat rooms, VR spaces are susceptible to bullying and harassment.

  

3. Isolation: 

Increased use of XR by a user may reduce face-to-face communication and social interactions, leading to social isolation. Its immersive content can lead to excessive use, potentially causing addiction and negative impacts on mental health. Additionally, age verification protocols should be embedded to ensure these aren't left in the hands of children. 


4. Deepfakes & AI: 

Many XR devices collect movement-tracking and eye-tracking data, all of which are extremely difficult to anonymize. Sensitive data like this, paired with audio recordings, could be used in bad faith to create deepfakes. Artificial Intelligence-enabled “deepfakes,” have been aiding in malicious scams of impersonation, disinformation campaigns, or even eroding trust of legitimate sources. 


5. Environmental Sustainability: 

Despite its advantages, the widespread adoption of XR-based technology could potentially have an environmental impact. This is mainly due to the increased demand for computational resources, server farms, and energy consumption to power these immersive experiences. This raises concerns about the potential carbon footprint of XR.  


The Powerhouse Duo: XR and Generative AI


When combined, they offer a powerful synergy with the potential to unlock entirely new possibilities for training, product development, customer experience, and more.


Content Creation  :

Traditionally, creating high-quality 3D assets for VR and AR experiences can be a time-consuming and expensive process. GenAI can automate this process entirely by generating realistic 3D models from existing 2D images or simple textual descriptions. Creation of detailed virtual worlds based on defined parameters can be leveraged by GenAI's techniques. This eliminates the need for meticulously hand-crafting every detail, saving time. It also eliminates the need for extensive manual design work, leading to significant cost savings within the organisation.


Voice-based assistance :

Advanced natural language processing (NLP) capabilities of GenAI models enable intuitive voice-based interactions, allowing users to receive personalized guidance through conversational interfaces. XR-based technologies like AR and MR can track the user's environment and surroundings. When integrated with GenAI voice assistants, this allows for highly contextual voice commands. It also enables hands-free operation, which is particularly valuable in scenarios where users need to follow guidance while performing physical tasks, making the process more efficient and safer.

 

Personalised shopping :

Artificial Intelligence through XR can analyze a customer's body dimensions (through phone cameras or in-store scanners) and create a personalized avatar. This avatar can then be used to virtually try on clothes, shoes and accessories, all in real-time. However, it doesn't stop at merely replicating products but is capable of generating variations too. User preferences might differ from person to person, for example, while shopping for a pair of jeans, some might have a preference for a different colour or another aspect like another pattern or different material. This level of personalization allows customers to experiment and find the perfect fit before making a purchase. Furthermore, analysis of past purchases & browsing history to recommend products that complement the customer's style is also a possibility.



Future of XR 


The XR landscape is undergoing a period of rapid evolution & has become more prevalent. Since 2022, XR technology has continued to experience significant growth and development. While still in its early stages of adoption by the mainstream, several trends emerged that showcased its potential. Overall, it has been paving the way for a future where the boundaries between virtual and physical worlds become increasingly blurred. Market research suggests the XR market size will reach significant heights by 2030, with a projected market growth rate exceeding expectations. Companies like Meta, with their popular Oculus Quest headset, are just one example of stakeholders heavily invested in making XR more prevalent across various sectors.


Advancements in XR hardware and XR content creation will be instrumental in shaping the future. XR holds immense potential to create immersive experiences that allow users to interact with digital technologies in entirely new ways. This technology has the potential to revolutionize Industry 4.0 by enabling the use of digital twins to optimize processes and blend the physical and digital.


Future research should explore how XR can be leveraged to enhance ways of working, foster synergy, and bring complex concepts to life. By understanding the needs of stakeholders and users, the XR industry can continue to develop innovative solutions that benefit society as a whole.


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