Extended Reality is just as it sounds. It is the universal term encompassing several different tools we can use to digitally maneuver what we experience- in effect, we are extending our own perception of reality.
Let’s get philosophical for a moment. What is reality? What does it mean to be conscious of what is real?
There is no objective answer, but there is one that makes sense to me: to be conscious of your own reality is to sense the world around you. When you touch, hear, smell, taste, or see something, information is sent to your brain regarding what you just perceived. The sensations you accumulate into memory throughout your life build up to what you consider to be “real”.
Given this definition, it is a lot easier to understand exactly what Extended Reality is. This is how I would explain it to my parents (who have never interacted with it before), and how my professors have explained it to me. Extending reality is like simulating our senses.
Many people are familiar with Virtual and Augmented Reality, as they have become increasingly popular in the entertainment space. People are transported to fantasy worlds from their own homes by simply putting on a headset. We can virtually change our face shapes and hair colors with Snapchat’s AR filters, or interact with characters through mobile games like Pokemon Go. In these cases, the headset or phone app is simulating our sense of sight. In the virtual space, we see something. But in our physical reality, nothing is there. It is similar for Mixed Reality, a lesser known and more complex technology where AR and VR come together to create a part digital, part physical environment. A great example of this is Microsoft’s Hololens, which projects virtual holograms that integrate seamlessly into an existing space, or can simulate a controlled reality. This is used a lot for educational and training purposes (https://www.gvsu.edu/cms4/asset/7E70FBB5-0BBC-EF4C-A56CBB9121AECA7F/7_things_about_microsoft_hololens.pdf).
Another new technology called Haptics is getting towards virtually replicating our sense of touch. There are gloves that use air pressure to simulate the surface of an object, so you feel as though a virtual table (perhaps in your VR game) is “pushing back” on you as your finger touches it, like a real table would (https://www.interhaptics.com/explore/what-is-haptics).
Extended reality is being used in so many different disciplines. Right now, it looks like it’s the future of how we interact with digital products. The bottom line is, humans are getting closer and closer to controlling the realities that we perceive. Whether this is the savior or downfall of humanity, only time will tell. Either way, it’s pretty cool.