Beyond VR: Why 2018 will be the year of XR
We are at a frontier. Just ahead, almost within reach, are a series of technological developments that are finally growing out of their infancy and will change not just the way we think about technology, but the way we think about reality and existence itself.
These developments will form part of what is called extended reality, or XR. The term describes the entire spectrum of reality, from the virtual to the physical, from augmented reality to augmented virtuality, virtual reality and everything in between. But what it implies is a dramatic, potentially species-defining change in human experience.
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To many people, this kind of talk will likely sound overly conceptual, but XR’s implications are highly tangible. Psychiatrists could treat a phobia using VR to simulate, with near-perfect precision, the physical and psychological environment required to induce the phobic response. At the Tribeca Film Festival, ‘Tree’ gave guests the opportunity to immerse themselves in a rainforest and take in the sights and smells of the Amazon while running their hands on the trunk of a centuries-old tree. These examples barely scratch the surface of what is possible. XR’s potential is nearly limitless and in 2018, it will arrive.
The end of the virtuality/reality dichotomy
This arrival of XR represents the collapse of the virtuality/reality divide. Within the new XR framework, virtuality and reality are no longer opposites. Neither are digital and biological. XR implies a far more complex relationship between these things – one in which virtuality can make things real.
A significant part of the XR revolution will be the slow but sure realisation by players in the market that some kind of collaboration, such as knowledge-sharing, is crucial – and overdue. Already, we’re seeing this happen. The Kronos Group has formed a working group of key industry leaders including Google, Valve, Epic, Oculus, Unity and Samsung for the OpenXR initiative. The initiative works towards a cross-platform VR standard that allows applications to be written once to run on any VR system, thereby eliminating industry fragmentation. Our situation as it is is prehistoric. The content consumed in an XR environment is limited by the compatibility of the hardware being used. Mac owners in the mid-90s had the same problem: the games they wanted to play were not compatible with their computers.
The OpenXR initiative also suggests that the key figures in the industry are – rightly – moving away from the idea that VR is an industry. VR is a tech like no tech we’ve ever seen before, and it will become fundamental to entertainment, healthcare, enterprise and countless other spheres of life and work.
The move to untethered hardware will represent a significant milestone in this XR revolution. Tethered XR experiences – for example, using a wired VR headset – significantly limits the scope of what virtual reality world creators can do. If you can only move in a 6ft radius, there will only be a finite number of potential virtual experiences that you can have. Nitero is one of the development companies already looking to ‘untether’ VR headsets and open up the virtual world.
Development of AI
What will be interesting to see is what happens in the artificial intelligence (AI) space. The creative and technological development possible across XR depends heavily on the speed at which artificial intelligence improves. As XR hardware improves we will be able to enjoy increasingly realistic experiences, but those experiences will only be as good as the technology’s ability to interpret our actions. AI will be the main driving force in the technology that responds to the speed of our breathing, for example, or the places we look or the noises we make. The fates of these two technologies, both of which have seismic implications for the way in which we as people live, are closely intertwined.
What’s certain is that change is coming. In 2007, Forbes magazine ran a now notorious front cover reading, ‘Nokia, one billion customers – can anyone catch the cell phone king?’ I don’t need to tell you – you who may well be reading this on your smartphone – what happened next. The point is that technology marches on, and it marches faster with each passing year. Is it really too ambitious to predict that 2018 will be the year of XR?