To understand extended reality technologies writ large, it is first essential to understand that our physical world is not reality at all. Reality is a construct; our mind’s interpretation of the so-called real world.
A great example of this is the viral 2015 gold dress/blue dress photo that rocked the internet, stirred up controversy, and caused many-a-heated debates around the water cooler. To some, their sense of sight reported blue and black to others, white and gold. If you are team white and gold, even confirmation from the manufacturer that the dress was blue and black will not convince you your mind’s interpretation was wrong. That is your reality.
Immersive Virtual Reality Products
Similarly, extended realities -although not physical artifacts-are real to users nonetheless. A common misinterpretation is that they fall along a spectrum of reality when in fact, the difference between them is actually the ratio of physical to digital input.
These inputs fall on an immersion spectrum that starts with a physical environment free of any digital influence and ends with a purely virtual one. For those of us charged with creating the objects that make up the physical world, knowing where our products fall or will one day fall on that continuum is critical to the success of our innovations and their usefulness to users.
The Extended Reality Spectrum
Acronyms are part and parcel of the industrial design discipline. Depending on what type of product development you practice, the terms Extended Reality (XR), Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), and Mixed Reality (MR) may not be completely familiar to you. However, as the world of technology enters an increasingly digital age, physical and digital products are becoming less and less siloed, and industrial designers will soon need to ideate and create with both in mind.
In fact, many physical products are already attached to a digital counterpart: app, GUI, or interface. But this is just the beginning of a digital revolution, and soon every product, from shoes to lamps, will need a virtual counterpart to compete in a world increasingly being brought under the Extended Reality (XR) umbrella. Which is where we will start.
Extended Reality Products on the Immersion Scale
XR is a term that encompasses all of the technologies creating virtual experiences for users. XR stands for Extended Reality, and it refers to the entire spectrum of environments from physical to virtual: AR, MR, VR, and any other technology that enhances our reality or creates a new reality beyond the physical world.
The spectrum starts with AR and ends with VR, but as you will see, a pure or fully virtual reality probably cannot exist. It should be noted there are several schools of thought on this, and not all of them agree on XR as an umbrella term. But the consensus seems to be moving in that direction. As we mentioned earlier, the beginning of the Extended Reality spectrum is Augmented Reality (AR) and is, therefore, the least immersive.
Augmented Reality in Product Design
AR technology imports the virtual world into the physical world by way of our senses, mostly sight and hearing. It can be an overlay of a virtual object onto the physical world within an app or via something like a headset. Aspirationally it could be something as discreet as a contact sense or earpiece. One day it may even grow to include tiny devices implanted into the brain. These types of technologies are extremely helpful and appear to work well with human physiology.
Applications in AR are already being used in gaming and entertainment and are available in apps on most cellphones; think Instagram philters and Pokemon GO. It is important to remember there is no interaction between these overlays and the physical environment; that falls within the next level of immersion, Mixed Reality.
Mixed Reality in Product Design
As you may have already guessed, in Mixed Reality, users can see and interact with digital elements. It allows users to interact with digital objects in a physical environment and vice versa. MR is also called Hybrid Reality because it combines elements of both AR and VR, merging the real world and virtual world and creating a new and separate environment in which digital and physical objects can interact with each other in real-time.
This space is where digital twin and most IoT technologies will be used and probably where many industrial designers and engineers will find themselves in the future due to the scores of sensor and environment-bridging wearable technologies that will be needed.
Virtual Reality in Product Design
Virtual Reality is the furthest end of the extended reality spectrum, in which users are fully immersed. But a better way to say it is “as immersed as they can be.” The very best virtual realities may one day be able to immerse our five basic exteroceptive senses (i.e., sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste) for a Star Trek Holodeck type of experience.
However, we have other senses, too — interoceptive. These are internal and can be described as a sense that helps us know if we’re hungry, thirsty, hot, or cold. Even with our external senses immersed, our Interoceptive senses would remain unaltered and therefore be in conflict. In this case, short of a Matrix-like reality, it could be argued that fully immersive virtual reality cannot exist. So, for our purposes, we’ll leave the ultimate immersive experience at the holo-deck and call that the pinnacle of Virtual Reality. I’m sure Trekkies — like us — would wholeheartedly agree.
Speck Design Product Design Agency, San Jose
Speck Design is a San Jose-based product design consultancy creating memorable experiences through human-centered industrial design and engineering for the last 25 years. We work with companies large and small to bring to life consumer products, automotive products, and medical devices. We specialize in UX design, user research, and design for manufacturing to help bring seamless solutions that bring products to market. If you have a VR, AR, XR, or MR product idea, we would love to help you bring it to life; reach out to discuss.