XR is new, exciting tech, and everyone is talking about it. But what does XR mean and when can you start using this technology? We’ll take a look at how XR is different from AR and VR, and how it will integrate with new devices and the gear you own already.
XR, cross reality, or extended reality, is a catchall term for several different but related technologies. It rolls together similar acronyms like VR (virtual reality), AR (augmented reality), and MR (mixed reality). Once you know that tidbit, understanding XR gets a whole lot simpler.
Below, we’ll guide you quickly through the word swamp surrounding XR tech. You’ll see fast comparisons to VR, AR, and MR, plus XR examples. After reading this overview, you’ll have a better grip on your own reality when it comes to this new term.
What is XR?
In a nutshell, XR is “reality-plus” tech using any kind of display. XR is VR plus AR.
XR stands for “extended reality,” an umbrella term that covers VR
, AR, and MR. All XR tech takes the human-to-PC screen interface and modifies it, either by 1) immersing you in the virtual environment (VR), 2) adds to, or augments, the user’s surroundings (AR), or 3) both of those (MR).
The term XR has been around for decades. It first popped up in the 1960s when Charles Wyckoff filed a patent
for his silver-halide “XR” film, intended for photographing extremely bright light events, such as nuclear explosions.
More recently, the term has moved into the mainstream as device makers struggle to describe the different display upgrades they’re working with. A couple of examples are immersing gamers in the action by putting a screen (a smartphone display or headset) right in front of the eyes (VR) or adding game characters to real-world surroundings like in the popular Pokémon Go (AR).
XR technology explained
Since XR is a catchall term, there’s really no question of “is my laptop XR” or “can I buy an XR phone?” That’s because devices with AR, VR, or MR tech are all considered “XR devices.” So if you’ve played a VR game
like Star Wars: Squadrons
or Half-Life: Alyx
or used Google Maps to navigate, you’ve already used XR tech.
The confusion around XR tech is that the term is overused. As with other umbrella terms in the past like “digital” or “natural,” there’s a bit of a marketing gold rush in play as every big tech company hustles to brand their latest gear with the up-and-coming moniker.
XR vs VR
Virtual reality (VR) is a subset of extended reality (XR). VR is an immersive computing or gaming experience where the user’s entire field of vision is filled via the device’s display. In some cases, this is as simple as a headset your smartphone fits into, so the phone’s screen sits an inch or so from the viewer’s eyes.
But while all VR is XR, not all XR is VR. For instance, augmented reality (AR) may use your phone’s camera to superimpose game characters onto your smartphone’s display, as if the character was in the room with you. That’s AR, and it’s also XR, but it’s not VR.
XR vs AR
AR is a subset of XR. AR captures live video of a device’s surroundings and then adds visual elements to it, such as a Pokémon Go
character in your living room, a tiger in Google search
, or educational markup to your surroundings in a workplace or a historical area.
Again, while all AR is XR, not all XR is AR. That is, you may play a VR video game with your phone in a VR headset. That’s VR, and it’s also XR. But it’s not AR, because there’s no “augmented” slice of the pie. You’re not superimposing anything from the digital world onto a display of your surroundings.
MR vs XR
MR or “mixed reality
” is a blend of two popular types of XR tech: VR and AR. To zero in on the terms, VR is immersion, such as when you use a smartphone screen in a headset to fully immerse yourself in gameplay. AR is augmentation, such as when you use an app to superimpose a digital tiger in your living room with your phone’s display.
MR would technically be a blend of both VR and AR, but the terms AR and MR tend to be interchangeable. However, there’s a clear difference between MR and XR. In short, all MR is XR, but not all XR is MR. For instance, a smartphone tape measure app
is both MR and XR, while a VR video game is XR, but not MR.
XR is already popping up all over, with applications from manufacturing to shopping to HR to gaming. Under the banner of XR, we’re seeing AR, VR, and MR in our lives, with more uses coming soon. These 5 XR examples scratch the surface of ways to use current and up-and-coming applications.
1. XR in business
Businesses are reaping the benefits of XR tech already, with immersive technologies as part of try-before-you-buy experiences
. For example, if you’re shopping online for a couch you can see how it actually fits into your living room. Some retailers are using XR tech to allow you to get a preview of the real thing. That leads to a reduction in returns and even one-ups the brick-and-mortar retail experience.
is getting a boost from XR, too. AR can show how new factory layouts will look before they’re set up, and maintenance crews will soon create plant walkthroughs that make machines that need servicing stand out in vibrant red or orange. XR hands-on training can give step-by-step virtual experiences in real-world facilities.
2. Top XR games
Star Wars: Squadrons is a VR game that taps right into your childhood dreams, letting you pilot an X-Wing or TIE Fighter with a VR headset. Other top XR titles include Trover Saves the Universe, Half-Life: Alyx, and No Man’s Sky. You’ve probably already played one of the top XR games in history, Pokémon Go, which puts friendly little “pocket monsters” in your living room and neighborhood.
3. Best XR devices
XR tech is making inroads into our homes and businesses in both expensive gear like the Oculus Rift, and bottom-dollar tech like Google Cardboard. That’s a piece of easy VR tech
that straps your smartphone to your face. Other notables include Playstation’s PSVR, with popular titles like Astro Bot: Rescue Mission, Tetris Effect
, and Beat Saber.
Today’s XR devices include VR headsets like HP’s Reverb G2 VR
, laptops like the HP OMEN
, and AR displays like the Microsoft HoloLens 2
, which can track your hand and eye movements for a seamless blend between the virtual environment and the real world.
4. XR you’re using now
You’re almost certainly already using at least one XR application regularly: Google Maps. Street view is technically XR, as is the satellite view you can use during navigation. You also use XR every time you watch an NFL game and you see that bright yellow first-down line on the screen. That’s actually not there in real life. When you do a Zoom call and someone uses a virtual background or an I-am-not-a-cat filter
, that’s XR, too.
5. Future XR applications
Get ready for XR to change your life deeply in the next couple of years. You’ll see it pop up in sports (analyzing your golf game and giving pointers, for example) and in healthcare (showing your path through the hospital to the X-ray department with blinking arrows). In education, virtual field trips
will broaden young horizons in new, exciting ways. You’ll even navigate tomorrow’s brick-and-mortar stores
with AR maps that guide you to the products you’re searching for.
XR is a new buzzword in the tech world, but it’s pretty simple to understand. XR is an umbrella term that rolls in VR, AR, and MR. In a nutshell, XR technology is any tech that takes your display and makes it more immersive, or makes it interact with your real-world surroundings in some way. And it truly is changing the future.
About the Author: Tom Gerencer is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Tom is an ASJA journalist, career expert at Zety.com, and a regular contributor to Boys' Life and Scouting magazines. His work is featured in Costco Connection, FastCompany, and many more.