Why you should embrace the continuum of augmented reality

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Emerging technologies of mixed reality (MR) and virtual reality (VR) are not familiar with specialized terms. In addition to MR and VR, this technology space includes terms such as augmented reality, augmented reality, augmented reality, spatial computing, wearable computing, ubiquitous computing and inverse. By the time you read this, there may be more.

Any discussion of “digital reality” requires a commitment to defining terms and context. Excessive use of terms can make it difficult to understand and erode the excitement and interest of outside curiosity among innovators and early adopters.

MR and VR are destined to merge into a single entity and are gradually converging. We should reflect this when talking about the tech space by being brief when talking about generalities and intentions and when diving into nuances.

Luckily, we’ve got a way to tame the jargon and not have to expand the already unwieldy vocabulary. Augmented Reality (XR) is the consensus term for “all mixed virtual and real environments and human-machine interactions”.


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Continuously expanding reality

Continuous-virtual reality describes a digital reality space with the endpoints of reality and virtual reality. Mixed reality is the spectrum between the endpoints. From a contemporary point of view, there are clear lines between reality and MR, reality and VR. The MR spectrum is naturally fuzzy and unreconcilable and has no well-defined boundaries. Reality and VR are discrete states, but MR is a non-linear gradient.

Augmented reality is the spectrum from MR to and including VR, or from another perspective, it is the real-virtual continuum that does not include reality. We can call this subset of real-virtual continuum the extended reality continuum.

Technological advancements and improved experience design will reduce the importance of the distinction between MR and VR, leaving users (even sophisticated ones) unaware of the difference. The classifications, as defined by the XR continuum, will only be meaningful to designers and developers.

Impact on experience design

It’s interesting to imagine that the distinction between MR and VR might not always be as straightforward as it is today. We’re seeing early cases of immersive digital experiences becoming fluid, and it’s not clear whether it’s MR or VR. This duality raises questions about the impact of both MR and VR on the quality of user experience.

To explore, let’s assume hardware and software exist to support both high-quality MR and VR experiences. The form factor is immaterial, but to aid the imagination think of Geordi La Forge’s visor (Star Trek: The Next Generation), any hat-wearing character in Star Wars (Darth Vader, Mandalorian, stormtrooper) or an implant (contact lens or replacement eye) as in black mirror “Your Entire History” (S1E3).

Several questions immediately arise when considering the impact of multidimensional augmented reality on experience design. What are the benefits and disadvantages of experiencing multiple poses in the XR continuum? Can a single experience successfully switch between MR and VR? Can an experience successfully cover multiple stops in the MR spectrum? How do we design realistic MR experiences augmented reality? What is the best experience in XR continuum for my users and their problem space?

Here are some of my initial speculative thoughts. Designers should claim to be MR or VR and stay true to that, but this mindset needs to be challenged and validated. Switching between MR and VR, where possible, may be through well-defined methods or so slow that the user is not aware of any changes. However, trying to be both MR and VR in the same experience is probably a design trap.

For now, nothing can be done but speculation and experimentation. However, we can advance educated hypotheses using past wisdom from interactive experience design.

Impact on hardware

Device hardware will also take care of this dichotomy. The most recent wave of prominent devices, such as the Oculus, HoloLens, Magic Leap, and smartphones (iPhone and Android), have a strong bias towards MR or VR. Each device optimizes to trigger one type of experience or another, but not both, and for good reason. Supporting both creates many technical challenges and can significantly impact production costs, in addition to the experience design challenges mentioned earlier.

However, this is changing, and future device iterations will support both MR and VR experiences. Devices such as magnetic devices Varjo, Lynx and Meta based on screen, with camera capabilities through. Pass-through means that the device uses an external camera to record what the screen obscures, allowing the user to “see through the screen”. These devices can support high-resolution MR and VR experiences.

Magic Leap 2 (ML2) can dim the external lens to produce realistic images that are not too blurry. This feature is more about improving the visual quality of rendered content, not making a meaningful effort to enable VR experiences. MR devices do not significantly support quality VR experiences due to the limited field of view and inability to completely block the physical environment.

It’s easy to envision (and hope) for a generation of XR devices — any device capable of supporting any experience in the XR continuum — rather than devices that are exclusive to the XR. MR or VR. Unfortunately, this can take several years and may require different form factors than what we have today. However, there will continue to be a market for specialized MR and VR devices. As technologies become commoditized, low-cost or solution-optimized hardware will continue to individually support VR or MR.

point of convergence

Take XR as a common anchor point to discuss MR and VR technology, as it best fits the common wording of MR and VR. This term supports discussions with a wide audience and within the creator community. There is a perceived benefit in simplifying for everyone. Continuous Augmented Reality is a foundational construct for the technical or detailed discourse that designers and developers require. Solving a simpler vocabulary allows us to focus on much more interesting things.

The terms simplification and consolidation take us beyond the question “Can we do this?” the stage of an emerging technology and explore the experiences that technology can bring. Designers and technologists need to prepare for the entire XR experience. Now is the time to explore the continuity of the XR and establish the experience design principles that will define the future and success of the vehicle.

We are starting what I see as the most exciting and exciting phase of any emerging technology.

Jarrett Webb is chief technology officer at argodesign

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