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  • What is virtual reality? VR vs. AR, MR, and XR, explained.

    Extended reality or XR is the all-encompassing term for technologies that alter our perception of the physical environment or even completely replace the real world. XR includes three primary elements – VR, AR, and MR – as well as any technology necessary for fusing together virtual and real-world elements and opportunities.

    Virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), extended reality (XR)...confused? Here's a simple guide to the frequently mentioned technologies – what they are, their differences, and how they can be applied to your daily life.

    What is XR (extended reality)? – where different computer-generated worlds converge

    Extended reality or XR is the all-encompassing term for technologies that alter our perception of the physical environment or even completely replace the real world.

    XR includes three primary elements –VR, AR, and MR – as well as any technology necessary for fusing together virtual and real-world elements and opportunities.

    Now, let's take a look at the three main components mentioned.

    What is VR (virtual reality)?

    Virtual reality or VR is a 3D, computer-generated environment that replaces a user's field of vision with total immersion. Headsets that block out views and sound of the physical world are the hardware of choice to enter VR.

    High-end VR experiences can fabricate a level of realism that engages a user's senses and provide true-to-life interactions.

    What is AR (augmented reality)?

    Augmented reality or AR overlays computer-generated visuals onto our perception of the real world, typically through a camera and screen. As the name suggests, it doesn't create a "new reality" but alters our view of the physical world.

    AR applications are commonly adopted in smartphones; think camera filters that change your appearance and surroundings in real-time. More advanced AR applications are embedded in location-based services.

    Imagine walking down a strip mall and turning on your smartphone camera. Store info, deals of the day, and fun little games automatically pop up on the screen to facilitate your shopping experience.

    Or wearing a pair of smart glasses on a lovely hike. Fitness stats, navigation directions, and your music playlist float right in front of your eyes without disturbing the natural scenery.

    What is MR (mixed reality)?

    Mixed reality or MR is a relatively recent innovation. It takes VR and AR and produces environments in which real-world and computer-generated elements interact. Characters and objects, whether they're from real or virtual worlds , can cross reality boundaries to create more complex and exciting experiences.

    Here are just a few examples of MR:

    • Superimpose visually stunning graphics onto physical surroundings.
    • Digitally map your living room and transform it with new décor.
    • Import virtual weapons and characters into the real world and turn any place into a medieval battleground and vice versa.

    MR is often called AR 2.0 for a reason. It provides a more visually rich and interactive experience that blurs the line between the real and virtual worlds .

    VIVE recently unveiled the VIVE XR Elite all-in-one VR headset . It incorporated many unique features, including precise depth-sensing and a full-color camera, that elevate the passthrough experience of MR.

    What can XR do?

    The end game for XR is to create "enhanced realism" that can match or in theory, even surpass real life. In addition to AR, VR, and MR, XR requires advancement in artificial intelligence, cloud computing, internet-of-things, high-speed data transfer, immersive hardware devices , and software applications, to name a few.

    Below are several application examples.

    XR in gaming

    Entertainment, particularly gaming, was the most promising segment when VR began to gain steam in the early-to-mid 2010s. Although XR has since crossed over to the workplace and many industrial use cases, gaming remains a significant area of adoption.

    Immensely popular titles such as Half-Life: Alyx , a fully immersive PC VR game, and the mixed-reality game Pokémon Go , which can be played on a smartphone, are proof that XR entertainment is here to stay.

    XR in healthcare

    This is one area where XR is making a very meaningful impact. In medical health, VR has allowed surgeons and medical students to practice complex procedures in highly realistic simulations.

    Immersive realism has been applied to patient rehabilitation as well. Medical researchers are discovering that VR may hold the secret to restoring feelings in patients who lost sensation in areas of their body after suffering spinal cord injuries.

    XR in retail

    Another application for consumers and businesses is the retail experience. AR is changing the way brands market and sell and how we shop.

    How about an augmented reality to try before you buy? Fashionistas can see how a garment might look on them online and in store without even stepping into the dressing room. You can even experiment with your existing wardrobe, checking how pieces might work together. For example, seeing at scale how a bag will look with a particular outfit.

    And what if the fashion itself was virtual? Fabric of Reality was the world's first VR fashion show. It highlighted works by three designers and introduced audiences to the limitless possibilities when showcasing fashion within virtual environments. Think this is the far-off future? Think again. Gucci recently debuted a pair of augmented reality sneakers for $12.99.

    XR in education

    Students with learning disabilities have been one of the most underserved groups in our society. In addition to resources dedicated to classroom learning, we need increased efforts to help them navigate real-world situations. VR technology has emerged as a great solution.

    Autistic children, for example, do not learn social skills at the same pace as their peers. Virtual programs put autistic students in situations such as riding public transportation, shopping, and interacting with peers to learn social cues and better understand behaviors that lead to positive or negative consequences.

    For example, if an autistic student continues to look downward, the program offers reminders. The avatar interacting with the student may walk away, cutting the conversation short. If eye contact is maintained, the avatar offers a friendly smile.

    The goal is explicitly teaching social competencies through "real" yet controlled settings, bridging the gap between knowledge and real life. It's critical to train in the safety of VR in the early stages to avoid discouraging setbacks and allow gradual progression.