Wearing a computer seem outlandish? The technology is already here. Prime example: the company behind Snapchat app recently launched Spectacles 3, a third-generation version of sunglasses with two HD cameras and the ability to add 3D effects to video. While seemingly innocuous, it demonstrates the marriage between immersive technology (also called extended reality, or XR) and wearable computers, a union which could cause smartphones to fade into 2D oblivion.
What is immersive technology?
Broadly defined, XR is any technology that extends, emulates or recreates reality through digital simulation. There are several iterations of XR depending on the level of human participation: Augmented Reality (AR), Mixed Reality (MR) and Virtual Reality (VR), just to name a few. So might you already be wearing, or carrying, one of these forms of tech?
Augmented Reality (AR)
In AR, digital imagery is layered over the real world. Slightly less intense than full immersion, there’s little opportunity for interaction. For example, Snapchat filters allow you to do things like overlay an image onto your own face. Another example would be the Pokemon Go, where users walk around an environment with their phone to find “Pokemon” that are layered over their view. AR runs almost exclusively on smartphones, providing consumers with an extended reality that so far has existed in a passive and entertainment-based realm.
Mixed Reality (MR)
A combination of AR and VR, mixed reality allows you to use your eyes, voice or hands to interact with digital content by overlaying it on top of your actual environment. While this technology represents a quantum leap in immersive technology, it’s yet to go mainstream. “Widespread and affordable distribution is still a ways off,” Beth Kates, creative director of the Digital Alchemy Performance Lab & Mixed Reality Atelier (DAPL), tells Parentology. “For example, Microsoft’s HoloLens marks a significant step in MR in terms of functionality and ease of interaction. It’s also not cheap.”
Headset devices such as HoloLens and Magic Leap One contain motion and depth sensors, as well as eye-tracking cameras to create a fully integrated experience for users. They also come with a hefty price tag.
At the other end of the immersion spectrum is VR. In this instance, the world is shut out by means of a head-mounted display (HMD) that displays a 360-degree view of digital content, experiencing that virtual world as though it were real.
XR and wearable tech
For the most part, XR devices are still held at a distance and require tapping, typing or swiping to progress. Even most consumer VR headsets require a smartphone to run them. Whether you’re interacting with virtual elements layered over the real world within a “holographic computer” (as Microsoft describes the HoloLens), or uploading 3D elements to your Snapchat feed, these emerging technologies represent a seismic shift from the technology you merely use to technology you wear.
“Wearables are next big step,” says Kates. “While defense and medical professions are currently driving these developments, it won’t be long before someone breaks a price line barrier and puts wearable AR into the hands of everyone.”
“The kind of depth mapping we’re seeing has a multitude of applications for virtually every industry,” she asserts. “We will control these kinds of computers very differently.” Among her predictions: Users might control the user interface with speech, navigate content with hand gestures or even their eyes.
And what will happen once AR is moved from the hands of teenage Snapchat doyens and onto the faces of the general public? Kates remains optimistic.
“Wearable computers represent a new level of access and knowledge. In the mainstream, AR can help people navigate their world and the people around them. Technology will become more human-centric, a way to engage with each other,” she says.
While we seem to be on the constant precipice of what this technology can do, there’s no doubt once it hits the tipping point, XR will present new ways of discovering our world, both real and imagined.