How to Define Reality
Reality can mean different things to different people: René Descartes1 became famous for the doubt he placed on the reality around him – the potential ever-present illusion that our senses may be conjuring – and through this very doubt, established himself to be the only certain thing in his reality. Others align more with the view of scientific realism2, that the objects we interact with do indeed exist beyond our limited perception of them and they are measurable. Outside these theories, one will find a trove of others, but in the end, conjured or not, we all experience a reality.
This experience of reality is typically how we learn; through shared experience we interact with one another, while the accumulation of experiences in the form of memories allows us to create a sense of self. Until recently, these experiences were more-or-less confined to the “real world”: conversations you have with your colleagues, a model of the solar system, the 7th iteration of a 3D-printed design.
However, this long-established landscape of reality – and our experience of it – is rapidly changing with the emergence of virtual (VR), augmented (AR), and mixed reality (MR); together, known as extended reality (XR). In general, virtual reality “hides” the real world and presents a completely “new” reality, where all visual input is simulated or modulated using software. Augmented reality, on the other hand, in a sense modifies the “real” reality through the overlay of virtual elements. Mixed reality can be thought of as the mix of VR and AR, where real and virtual objects can co-exist.
Now, a virtual world itself is not necessarily a new concept, and endeavors to create one can be seen as early as Charles Wheatstone’s 1838 stereoscope or Edward Link’s 1929 flight simulator. These early versions of VR attempted to basically convince our senses that something was “out there” in space, when – in reality – there wasn’t.
Building upon this work, Ivan Sutherland, one of the conceptual founders of modern-day VR postulated: “The ultimate display would, of course, be a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal. With appropriate programming such a display could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked.”3
With such an “ultimate display”, one would presumably have trouble distinguishing the real reality from the virtual reality. Though – luckily – we are far from virtual bullets being fatal, it does seem we are getting to this ultimate level at least on one point: the visual realm. Our advances in display technology and optics allow us to produce virtual environments so life-like and crisp, that this very distinction of reality becomes blurry.
The question arises: Why is vision so influential to our overall perception of experience? Well, even if you take this very instance of reading, the differences in contrast between the letters in these words and the background of this page are activating a myriad of neurons within your visual cortex. Edge detection and recognition of common forms are being relayed to higher language areas for further processing. The brain is an extremely complex network of interaction, and our own interaction with the world outside is limited through our senses. However, it is vision in particular that has a uniquely high neuronal allocation. Studies estimate 54% of our cortex is devoted to processing visual stimuli,4 while only 11% is devoted to hearing and merely 3% for touch.5 With this percentage in mind, you might begin to see why directly controlling the input into the visual cortex through virtual reality can create such immersive, impactful, and engaging environments. Environments that are now being utilized not only for novel experiences and gaming, but also for productivity, collaboration, healthcare, learning, and socializing. Environments which very well may play a huge role in the future of work.
Trends and Applications of Extended Reality
The Future of Work
The concept of a fixed desk at a fixed location is becoming quickly superseded by the hybrid work model. Without a doubt, remote work is currently booming, but is it the future?
Well, diconium is already on board, and a further 85% of surveyed managers seem to think it is here to stay and have additionally accelerated measures to implement digital solutions more effectively.6,7 Perhaps even more striking, a survey carried out by Buffer showed that 97.6% of employees would like some sort of hybrid work model to stay for the future.8
This also isn’t bad for the companies themselves: The option to work remotely has been shown to decrease resignations by 50%, increase productivity by up to 66%, save money, and reduce overall stress!9,10 Not to mention, McKinsey reported that 30% of surveyed employees would even go so far as to search for new work if the company would go back to full-time onsite working.11
That said, remote work is not without its own problems. That same McKinsey report also showed that almost half of participants are worried about communication at work and the post-pandemic world, while the aforementioned Buffer survey said the three biggest challenges faced are disconnecting after work (22%), loneliness (19%), and communication (17%).
So, what do we do with these statistics, and how does XR fit into all of this? For one, many large corporations set on the hybrid concept are now looking toward VR solutions to increase communication, collaboration, and productivity while decreasing loneliness.12
Meta, formerly known as Facebook, acquired Oculus, a well-respected VR company, in 2014. This partnership has now flourished, combining the technological advances of Oculus with the vast social network of Meta. One key area of development is that of Horizon Workrooms, currently in beta, declared by a Forbes reporter13 to be “…one of the most amazing things [they’ve] seen in VR”. In these workrooms, there are whiteboards, shared notepads, and options for multiple environments to correlate with the number of participants. The content created there can be easily ported back onto PCs, and vice versa. The ability to bring and link your real keyboard and desk and see them virtually also exists. Integrations with Dropbox, Slack, and Zoom Meeting are reported to come later this year. However, there are still bottlenecks such as wearing time comfort, better optics for text clarity, and adding built-in sensors to show live interactive facial expressions (which actually is now only an integration task14).
Meta isn’t the only company betting big on the future of XR, they are joined by an ever-expanding list of S&P 500 companies.15 Again, Forbes declared that XR “will be one of the most transformative tech trends in the next five years”.16
By 2030, the total potential added to the global economy by XR solutions is 1.5 trillion dollars; with the top-five use cases being product and service development (359 billion), healthcare (350 billion), development and training (294 billion), process improvements (275 billion), and retail and customer (204 billion).17 The time is now to start developing innovative solutions to capture some of this market growth, the sector is growing rapidly and those arriving first will certainly take the largest pieces of the pie.
Extended Reality in business
The market for Extended Reality is not only growing, but it is set to grow 7x faster than similar technology sectors such as the “smart home” or “wearables”. The market value of these sectors taken together will balloon to 542 billion by 2025, while the International Data Corporation estimates that AR/VR devices alone will have a 64.8% compound annual growth rate over the same time.18 Yet, these numbers don’t even incorporate the value derived from online gaming applications, subscriptions, and video. A subsequent report by Vnyz Research has this sector growing from 28.2 billion to 165.3 billion by 2027.19
This projected growth is supported through the growing adaptation of these technologies by well-established companies. For instance, Ericsson, the communication giant, provided VR headsets to employees during the pandemic lockdown.20 They go on to speak about the “de-materialized office” being the “future of enterprises”, with the ability to even remotely control a “digital twin” to check up on automated factories or operate in dangerous locations. HP and Xerox have also jumped on the bandwagon, offering “live” customer support using AR.21,22 While WebEx Hologram23 offers users the ability to share virtual space and objects. In this case, engineers and designers on different sides of the planet can work with and manipulate a true-to-design holographic prototype together. Microsoft isn’t far out of this game either, they launched their Microsoft Mesh24 in 2021, allowing for both VR and AR integrations. Environments like these have seen explosive growth in the last years. Anand Agarawala, the CEO and co-founder of Spatial, a sort of ‘Zoom for VR’, reported over 1000% user increase from March to December 2020.25
Extended Reality in product development and customer experience
It is clear now that this technology is being rapidly adopted and stands to be taken seriously. Product development is one of the main applications where virtual reality can be a great boon. In fact, Volkswagen, along with Volvo, Ford, and BMW, have implemented XR solutions for several years across areas such as product design, employee training, and customer experience.26 VR-based apps such as Quill, Gravity Sketch, and Tvori provide interfaces for real-time animation, CAD, and 3D-design. Operating on “virtual” products is not only faster, but it can also help workers iterate and collaborate across company level (especially multi-locational companies) on a never-before-seen speed and scale.
Beyond product development from a manufacturing angle, a recent study also showed that using AR has a positive impact on sales. With AR, one can transform static images into animated 3D objects that can captivate and entertain customers. IKEA, Toyota, Hyundai, Walgreens, and Lowe’s have all implemented forms of AR in their business models from navigation to product visualization and display.27 Future applications can further provide insights to the would-be customer. Imagine seeing how renovations will look before paying the heavy price tag or crossing that point-of-no-return. Imagine seeing your actual new wall color before painting it, and then inevitably re-painting it. Imagine sharing virtual objects in real-time as the design team interacts and modifies them according to your wishes.
Extended Reality in education and training
Long gone are those boring old VHS tapes, nowadays, students can dive straight into the solar system in VR and literally – or rather virtually – touch the sun. Such immersive experiences can immensely increase learning and information retention.28 Medical students have even been trained to carry out real brain surgery using VR,29 citing the importance of the ability to increase the repetitions of such a procedure quasi-infinitively. Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company, was one of the early adopters of the technology. They have used both AR and VR applications to train employees on how to build components of their aircrafts before the actual physical labor begins, or before the parts are available.30 These methods could cut the overall personnel training time by up to 75% according to Boeing officials.31 Even retailers, such as Walmart, have used VR as a preparatory simulation device to train staff to handle difficult situations and stressful interactions.32
Extended Reality in healthcare
Along that same line, Extended Reality applications can have an extremely positive impact when used under the right circumstances. Healthcare was one of the earliest adopters of XR, as the ability to transport the patient into a positive environment has long been shown to increase positive outcomes, and the ability to manipulate these environments with precision and collect accurate data allows for things like individualized rehabilitation.33 Even early applications of virtual reality have shown to be extremely effective in the alleviation of pain,34 while incorporating VR in stroke rehabilitation has now become a cutting-edge technique, primarily for improving movement abilities.35,36,37 Mental health is also at the forefront of VR research, and positive effects have been reported for improving psychosis, autism spectrum disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).38 Additionally, a modified type of VR termed virtual reality exposure therapy has been shown to be promising in reducing phobias.39 Are you unreasonably afraid of spiders? Well, systematically increasing exposure to a virtual spider can be quite effective at reducing fear of a material spider.
Virtual Reality in socializing
Cue the “metaverse”. There are already many applications with huge userbases designed specifically for social interaction such as VR Chat, Altspace VR, and Rec Room. Some of these “social-specific” applications even allow you to play minigames together or simply sit around and chat while imagining the warmth of a virtual campfire while roasting virtual marshmallows. Meta is again attempting to capture a large portion of the market with Horizon Worlds (the non-workplace edition), where one can design a personal virtual world into which others can come and meet and interact.40 Roblox41 also provides this sandbox-like development space and mutual world sharing; they have seen their userbase steadily grow year-over-year from 10 million in 2018 to over 40 million in 2021. 42
Even if a VR environment isn’t explicitly designed for socializing, it can certainly be used as such. Undoubtedly, gaming is still the main market for VR applications today. In these games, connection is truly felt when seeing each other’s custom-made avatars, speaking with open mics, and sharing virtual space and objects (imagine flawless real-time VR table tennis against someone on the other side of the world during your lunch break!). True, meeting people in person will always be special and the goal should not be to replace it. However, virtually interacting with someone when the distance is simply too far does have its allures.
Conclusion: The future of extended reality
The applications for XR are far and wide, and we are, according to the many experts listed in this article, still in the lift-off phase of this technology. The opportunity is ripe today to seize future market capitalization by establishing XR integration pipelines, developing innovative software, and applying advanced data solutions.
After the letter came the telephone, after the telephone came the video call, and after the video call came shared virtual environments. Reality has been extended once again. Even here at diconium, we have begun to cross the bridge with the inaugural launch of “diconiumland” on March 18th. I’ll see you there.