“XR is a superset integrating the entire spectrum of the virtual-reality continuum”
The term “extended reality” (XR) refers to all environments that combine real and virtual elements with various levels of interactivity with and between these elements. This includes augmented reality (AR), which superposes virtual 2D or 3D elements onto a real environment, virtual reality (VR), which completely immerses the user in a virtual universe, and mixed reality (MR).
Sometimes considered as a type of AR, the latter merges real world and virtual world to produce a new space in which physical and digital objects coexist and interact more extensively.
In addition to the above are 3D audio and human-machine interfaces (HMI) – that enable a user to control and communicate with a system – , including for example location sensors, motion sensors, and haptic devices.
XR is therefore a superset integrating the entire spectrum of the virtual-reality continuum, from unaltered physical environment to completely immersive virtual reality. Although it is still in the early stages, extended reality is already being used in several sectors, three examples of which are to follow.
An immersion into different jobs
XR is used more and more by companies to offer innovative and safe training. This can be finding out about a profession, learning professional practices and safety instructions, skill development, etc.
The advantage of immersive technologies is that they can reproduce working environments and create a great number of scenarios, including ones that are risky or difficult to set up in reality, by offering a high degree of immersion and interactivity.
The learner evolves in an ultra-realistic site simulation, or grasps a complex system, and carries out the assigned exercises. The trainer can analyse the strategies deployed. Once in real conditions, the person who has been trained knows the professional practices better and applies them more easily.
For sometimes dangerous jobs (in energy or construction for example) or for those with major responsibilities (surgeon, airline pilot, etc.), XR training is a way of preparing students for delicate situations, such as critical on-site interventions, without the associated risks.
They also contribute to more efficient learning. In the area of education and training, the benefit of simulations has been highlighted for a long time. “Augmented” by XR, they enable learning that is less theoretical – outside the classroom – , more fun, and based on experience, which should motivate learners more and anchor knowledge more in the long-term.
Design and production assistance in the factory of the future
Identified as strategic for industry 4.0, immersive technologies are involved at all stages of the production chain, from research and development to placing products on the market.
During conception, they help designers and engineers to elaborate and test industrial products. For example, prototyping in virtual reality provides the opportunity to visualise 3D-models of real objects designed with computer-aided design software, to simulate their operation in virtually real conditions, analyse the results, and optimise their design. And all this while leaving a lot of room for collaborative working.
Making it possible to limit prototypes and physical tests, the use of virtual prototypes at an early stage of the development cycle reduces design costs and delays, while also optimising product quality. In effect, they provide engineers with the opportunity to compare the performances of different models quicker and to define the best manufacturing processes.
In the area of maintenance, digital twins are used to monitor and optimise the running of industrial equipment. As a digital replica of a real system (machine, industrial process, assembly line, or even an entire factory) provided with data that is gathered by IoT sensors, the digital twin provides information on the condition and performance of this system throughout its lifecycle.
Thanks to machine learning, it can also make predictions so as to anticipate any potential malfunctions. Here again, virtual, augmented or mixed realities make it possible to visualise and interact with the digital model.
This leads to a third application of XR in industry: operational assistance. MR in particular helps to guide operators through task performance by providing contextualised information in real time. During engine quality control [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPv2kIZcDhQ], for example, the technician, equipped with a HoloLens headset, can visualise the digital representation of every part of an engine, superposed onto the real engine, as well as display plans, instructions, advice, etc. throughout the process, all the while keeping their hands free.
The virtual tour, a major asset for estate agents
In the service sector, property developers and estate agents are also turning to XR to entice potential buyers. The aim is to create an immersive and interactive experience so as to help them imagine themselves in their future home.
Thus, the virtual tour firstly enables the potential buyer to get an initial idea about the property before planning a real tour, which is particularly useful when they plan to buy far away from their place of residence. Then, more importantly, it enables them to explore the property as if they were on site, even though it may not yet have been built, which is a considerable asset for the purchase of a new house or apartment.
Although 360-degree photos already enabled buyers to get a faithful representation of an interior, VR goes even further by “teleporting” them straight into the home, where they can go from room to room. Thanks to AR, the owner can visualise a building in situ before it is built. Equipped with their smartphone or tablet, they can go onto the land where work is being carried out so as to visualise their future home or residence in 3D and real size.
Many experiences also offer customisation of the property, from floor to ceiling. During the tour of an old house, the estate agent can now offer clients a view of possible plans (pulling down a partition to make an open-plan kitchen, building a walk-in wardrobe, etc.) and customisation options. Thanks to mixed reality, the buyer can even play at interior-designer, by adding furniture to an empty room and trying out all sorts of finishes on the floors and walls.
Training and learning, maintenance and production processes, real estate, etc. These are just a few examples. Medicine, e-commerce, advertising, leisure and culture are among the many other areas that are exploring the potential of extended reality technologies.