Unity Developer Rob Farthing and App Developer Chris Hull delve into the development trends coming to XR.
As the embodied XR technologies (VR, AR, and MR) have emerged out of their infancy over the past few years, the corresponding terminology and its correct application has become bewildering for many. Only recently has the term XR become pertinent as the three platforms have begun to conform making each of them less discernible.
For example, Project Cambria, the codename for Meta’s (previously Facebook) MR hardware, is continuously being classified as either AR, VR, or MR depending on the article or publication. For this reason, it is becoming more difficult for businesses and the public to decide on suitable technology for their purposes and to understand the strengths and limitations of each, especially with each technology constantly evolving.
In this article, we will explore seven XR trends that have been taking shape over the past year to be the top trends in not only 2022, but within the long-term future of AR, VR and MR.
With AR reaching a stage of relative maturity in both device reach and development tools, there are still many areas that AR is continuing to improve to make it more useful. Mainly with the advancement of machine learning, we are beginning to see its use in AR to improve detection of environments and objects within those environments.
It wouldn’t be too outlandish to predict that eventually, AR will become a redundant term for describing how a smartphone can track a room. Instead, smartphones will actually be ‘smart’ phones which fully understand where they are at all times without any need for the user to scan floors or wave their phone around. The security implications of this of course are massive but it is mainly up to the creators to be transparent about what data is and isn’t collected.
We are also seeing significant advancements in AR with full-body tracking, something which is important to ensure that digital content is not always overlapping other people in the space; for both safety and immersion reasons. This begins to allow new possibilities such as overlaying clothing realistically on people and avatars that blend in among people realistically.
Contact-Free Mixed Reality
Out of the current mainstream XR technologies, mixed reality is possibly the least well-known due in part to the hardware costs and practical applications. What it does offer, however, is a glimpse of how the future might look. MR can offer a seamless computer-generated overlay on reality and is entirely hands-free when using gestures. In a society that is cautious about contact and hygienic practices, this offers a lot of advantages and we are seeing many examples already within exhibition halls and tradeshows.
There are a couple of issues at the moment that limit the technology with one of the common complaints being the field of view, but hardware companies are tackling this issue each year with it being one of the primary selling points of new hardware. We may see MR subsume AR in the future, and with the two technologies offering a similar end product over the next year, it is reasonable to expect heavier development focus on MR technologies.
Virtual reality has existed for decades even manifesting itself in impractical forms such as Nintendo’s Virtual Boy from 1995. Consistent gripes have been field-of-view, nausea from sensory deprivation, and no true practicality though there has been an increased usage in remote training, education, and communication in recent years.
We have also seen the emergence of all-in-one VR headsets, such as the Oculus Quest 2, mobile compatible headsets such as the VIVE Flow as well as peripheral PC headsets that maximize hardware capabilities such as the VIVE Pro 2. All forms of VR are experimenting with gesture-based and wireless technology and we will, over the coming years, see which form of the technology the public adopts and in which use cases specialist requirements manifest themselves.
With one of the principal avenues for the latest hardware deployments being tradeshows and conferences alongside the changes, the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced to society, gesture technology and hologram technology have seen an unanticipated boost in development with the desire for contactless interactive experiences being greater than ever.
All XR platforms are seeing more gesture-based interaction introduced, such as Ultraleap, as well as more wireless technology integration, such as HTC’s wireless adapter for their VR headsets, and you can expect this trend to continue over the next few years as we will see fewer wires, controllers and physical limitations.
Another term fairly new to this growing tech space is the ‘metaverse’, the promise of a connected digital space where realities overlap. Most recently brought to the spotlight by Facebook through their evolution into ‘Meta’ and proposed to not require specific hardware, anyone will be able to connect to the metaverse. Not restricted to specific hardware, anyone will be able to connect to the metaverse. But what does it really take for it to all work, and for us to get to that point?
We have OpenXR from Khronos Group, a common standard for virtual reality and augmented reality applications to support any suitable hardware, however, this solution is still in its infancy and has not yet become the default target for AR/VR apps.
Friction in using VR/AR needs to be reduced, users need to be educated on how to scan and detect surfaces in their physical space to orient themselves, and controller layouts need to be learned. Due to there being many different ways of interacting within VR still being tested out, hand tracking is still experimental for most headsets and controllers are often associated more commonly with VR gaming.
It is still not simple to port content between different applications either due to the use of different data structures and/or code languages (the underlying structure of the application). We are starting to see some adoption of more open file formats such as glTF and USD, both created by Khronos Group and Pixar respectively.
In order to unify the types of experiences, we are using on these platforms, providing access to them regardless of what devices we own is paramount to broadening the reach of immersive experiences. We still have a way to go before XR is as ubiquitous as mobile phones, but by the time we get there, the content and applications we use will be more capable of supporting user-generated content and interaction methods.
Given the current worldwide hardware shortages, this almost feels like a setback on the road to the metaverse, but it also allows more time for the hardware engineers to make the next generations of these devices more user-friendly and comfortable to wear for extended periods.