Date of publish: Oct 28, 2021
As we have seen in the past decade, consumer-adopted technologies proliferate faster into the enterprise – especially in the digital era. Extended reality (XR) is at the cusp of making that transition and is ready to leap into redefining business processes.
While companies across industries have experimented with this technology enough, it is time to invest in scaling and innovating the offerings around XR to redefine their customer experience. When every aspect of the business, from product development to operations to support, tries to redefine customer experience across the industry spectrum, XR extended reality can help unlock more value that other technologies cannot. With every analyst report predicting an addressable market ranging from $200 Bn $750 Bn by 2026, we believe the truth indeed lies somewhere in between, making it the next biggest technology revolution waiting to happen. The workforce challenges faced during the COVID-19 era are a catalyst in transforming the adoption of XR.
With our experience of working with several customers from aerospace, automotive, manufacturing, and hi-tech companies, we observe XR adoption across use cases such as training, product development, repair, and maintenance, to name a few. Some of these use cases have established the ROI and are all set to scale in the years to come. We also strongly believe that companies obsessed with redefining customer experience must make XR-supported service a part of their mainstream. Nevertheless, there is a huge optimism and excitement toward the adoption of this technology in solving business challenges.
But why is extended reality so exciting? Is it only a perception of what this technology could be, or is it possible to build an alternate reality? Does extended reality bridge the gap between human perception and real-world applications with real benefits? This article will explore the connection between human perception and the broad spectrum of various alternate reality technologies.
Extended reality is a powerful medium to build new experiences. We can build synthetic experiences that combine with real-world information to deliver believable yet unreal experiences through the technology available to us. These experiences draw from the previously known, accepted, and established notions, mental models, and audio-visual imagery and build an alternate reality that's a relatable and believable version of our perception. Before we explore the alternate realities further, let's understand how the human mind builds the perception of the world around it.
Establishing the link between ‘perception’ and ‘alternate reality experiences’
Human perception is a manifestation of the brain's ability to analyze and synthesize data to bring context. The brain builds this perception of the world around by combining sensory inputs with past knowledge. These perceptions shape our behavior and influence our actions and reactions. Though our brain collects information through all five senses, visual and auditory stimuli are the most powerful and dominant sensory channels, followed by tactile stimuli. By altering these stimuli received through two or more senses, we can train our brain to build and/or change our perceptions and thereby build new experiences. The more realistic these altered inputs can become, the more influence they can have on the brain to construct new perceptions. When these perceptions combine with our likes/ dislikes, they can form unique experiences.
This ability of the human mind to build new experiences is the key to extended reality. By combining synthetic visuals with auditory and tactile inputs, one can stitch together powerful sensory stimuli for the brain to build the perception of an alternate reality.
Depending on the application, these audiovisual-tactile input data models can be built in isolation or superimposed on the real world. Before we delve deeper, let's understand the fundamental differences between the various terms widely used in the industry.
Various mediums serve a different cocktail of sensory stimulus, creating the perception of different realities, commonly known as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) or merged or mixed reality (MR).
Extended reality is an all-encompassing term frequently abbreviated to 'XR.' The XR universe represents all alternate and overlapping realities of VR, AR and MR. Each of these mediums uses different levels of audio-visual tactile data to provide alternate sensory stimuli and thereby build new experiences. Let's have a cursory look at each of these alternate realities before exploring the overlaps.
For ease, let's start with a terminology many of us are already familiar with—Virtual reality. VR is one of the first alternate realities made familiar and popular by the gaming industry. Virtual reality immersive experiences are created using (a) purely real-world content captured through 360degree cameras, (b) purely synthetic computer-generated 3D content like most of the gaming experiences, or (c) a hybrid of both. Usually, a head-mounted device (HMD) like the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, or even Google Cardboard is used to experience VR applications. VR has been around for a long time and has been extensively used by the entertainment and gaming industry. Of late, many industrial and commercial applications have found VR suitable for applications such as skill improvement and training, virtual product walk-through, etc. The development of haptic-enabled controllers and wearables has provided new tool kits for designers to create even more engaging virtual experiences.
Unlike VR, AR is not an entirely synthetic experience. Augmented reality depends on the real world and builds enhanced experiences by adding or overlaying data to the existing real-world elements. Augmented reality is a live, direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory inputs.These inputs can be in the form of images, 2D-3D graphics, videos, sounds or other data collected from sensors, etc. Modern mobile phones (both iOS and android) are capable of providing rich AR experiences. This makes AR accessible and meaningful in day-to-day applications. Additionally, multiple HMDs available today provide hands-free AR experiences that are very useful in industrial and commercial applications. In most cases, augmented synthetic content and real-world content do not recognize each other or interact with each other.
Merged or mixed reality removes the boundaries between real and virtual. It merges both worlds to create new environments and visualizations where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real-time. This is achieved through a technique called 'occlusion,' where computer-generated objects can take cues from the real world to merge in the real world. They display similar visual characteristics such as lighting conditions, and shadows. These objects can obscure or be obscured by objects in the physical environment and interact with objects in the real world. These experiences are anchored in the real world. Advanced Merged Reality HMDs such as Microsoft Hololens and Magic Leap One are powerful computers that harness these computers' hardware and software capabilities to provide believable 'merged reality' experiences.
Today, AR, VR, and MR are experienced through different devices and applications, drawing a relatively well-defined boundary. Few devices, use cases, and applications allow us to switch between VR and AR. These are primarily due to the current form of hardware packaging and limitations. So, are these experiences mutually exclusive, or do they overlap with each other? How does the boundary of our ‘real' world overlap with these synthetic experiences? We believe these experiences form a continuum by blurring the lines between the real-world experience and various forms of altered synthetic experiences. By understanding this continuum better, we could build more compelling experiences for different use cases. We could also visualize how these experiences would shape future technological advancements, such as the ‘metaverse’ and other futuristic altered experiences.
The 'real-reality-virtuality' continuum is an extension of human perception with end-less possibilities.
We believe these alternate realities do not exist in isolation; instead, they overlap with each other to create a real-reality-virtuality continuum.
The illustration below plots a picture of the continuum, with the relative position of the AR, MR and VR, the overlap between them, and a projection of the possible alternate universe beyond virtual reality.
The data overlaid in AR and MR on our 'reality' enables us to create a better perception of the task and work environment, allowing us to perform tasks efficiently and effectively. Most of these data is perceived by our brain as contextualization of the 'real-world,' influencing our actions. In this extension of the 'real' into a new 'reality,' our real-world seems to extend beyond the boundaries of the 'real' to enable us to perceive data and perform actions in ways not possible within the limits of the real world. This enhances our abilities and enables us to do a task better, more efficiently, quickly, or in an error-free manner. The various elements of this perception of the 'alternate’ reality and the new experience can be depicted in the graph below.
In virtual reality, the experiences occur in a synthetic world. While powerful imagery and audio can manipulate the brain's perception making it believe the synthetic experience as real, the fact that the experience occurs in a synthetic environment means we do not directly connect with the real world. In VR, our actions cannot have direct consequences to our real world. And thus, VR has found its footing in the entertainment and gaming world. An extremely engaging, immersive, relatable, and believable world providing thrill and entertainment, but with no direct relationship with the real world around the gamer. All elements of this experience, such as presence, stimulus, interaction, etc., are all simulated and hence can only be experienced virtually.
Is it then, AR-MR and VR have set templates and defined boundaries with their fixed combination of hardware-software-application, or are these boundaries fluid? We believe the boundaries are fluid which keep changing with the available technologies. Today, our understanding is influenced by the wearables and other technologies available now. As technology evolves further and gets disrupted by new hardware-software in the market, our understanding of the boundaries between AR-MR and VR will change.
What lies beyond Virtual Reality? Is it possible to extend the virtual experience into the Real-world with a meaningful connection of virtual actions with tangible results? One can imagine this to be a bridge connecting the experience and actions of the virtual world to meaningful applications for the real world. The evolution of technology holds tremendous excitement for the AR-MR-VR space and holds good promise to explore 'what lies beyond Virtual Reality.' We think the 'Metaverse' may have some clues to understand this connection, and as the Metaverse evolves, it will take us further to exploring human perception and its connection with consciousness.
The true Metaverse is a parallel Virtual Universe with a pathway to connect the Real World.
The ‘metaverse’ is a perceived virtual universe made up of persistent, shared, 3D characters, objects, spaces, and virtual experiences. The term metaverse was coined by Sci-fi author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 sci-fi novel, Snow Crash, an alternate digital reality where people interact with their virtual avatars to work, play, and socialize. In the current internet era, we all have our virtual presence through social media profiles, enterprise identity authentication, etc. Metaverse is about to inject life into these virtual personas to enable us to experience a real-life-like virtual experience.
Metaverse will not only help us realize our virtual presence but will also build a pathway for us to connect the virtual to our real. This will take human perception of the real and the virtual to a whole new level. As the metaverse matures, the lines between the real and the virtual will blur. It is too early to predict the shape, form, and extent of the evolution of metaverse, but there is no doubt, it will require a technological leap to reach there.
We are very excited with the potential and we look forward to playing a defining part in building the future of alternate reality technology business.
XR technologies have a tremendous potential to transform human perception and unlock possibilities beyond our imagination today. The advancements we are witnessing in computing technologies, network and data transmission, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and Voice processing, etc., are all coming together to make XR mainstream for the next decade.
At HCL Engineering and R&D Services (ERS), we are committed to playing a leading role in this transformation journey. While we have already built interdisciplinary capabilities, industry-specific products and solutions, and partnerships to create a niche for us as a leader in the XR technology space, we continue to invest heavily in future technologies with a vision to lead transformation in the next decade. We could not be more excited to be part of the journey to uncover the future of XR and metaverse.