Experts: Doris Agotai (FHNW), Andreas Kunz (ETH Zürich)
The term ‘extended reality’ covers a spectrum ranging from mixed reality applications through to fully immersive virtual reality applications. Little of the hardware is being developed in Switzerland, but there are some companies and agencies in this country that develop software for such devices. The technology opens the door for interesting applications in various industries and sectors.
Picture: XR Expo, Unsplash
‘Extended reality’ (XR) is a collective term for technologies that create computer-generated environments and objects, and display them in the user’s field of perception. The various technologies are defined by differences in the relationship between the real and virtual worlds.
At one end of the spectrum, there are mixed reality (MR) applications, in which the real world is the focus of perception and digital objects are displayed to supplement it. Smart glasses, projections or smartphones supplement human perception, e.g. with informative texts that provide a more detailed description of what is seen – a building or machine for instance – or that provide operating instructions, directions or the like.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are virtual reality (VR) applications. The concept of virtual reality has evolved in parallel to the computer and the latter’s ability to simulate reality. When the term ‘virtual reality’ is used today though, it is defined more narrowly: It pertains to applications that display a computer-generated three-dimensional 360-degree environment, in which the user can be completely immersed, while the real world remains completely hidden. In contrast to MR applications, users of VR applications need specific hardware, such as a head-mounted display, also known as a VR headset. As the name suggests, such a display is attached to the head.
In the end-user segment, extended reality (XR) has become particularly established in gaming. Various XR applications are already being used in industry as well. These can display, for example, information from a digital twin in real time. Such new human-machine interfaces enable improved and more intuitive interaction, helping engineers to maintain machines, for instance. Virtual reality applications are also being used to train staff. In sales, XR applications promise innovations: With complex products in particular, walk-through 3D models enable better representation and configuration of the object to be sold, compared to a photograph or drawing. When selling real estate, for example, rooms can be inspected even before construction actually begins, so links to building information modelling (BIM) are emerging. Furthermore, once buildings are in use, XR can use BIM data within rooms to show the location of pipes. In addition, XR is being put to use in production planning and workplace design. Moreover, there are already several XR applications in medicine, for instance in the diagnosis and treatment of phobias.
Following the rebranding of Facebook Inc. as Meta in 2021, the term ‘metaverse’ has been a subject of much discussion. Although public interest in the term, and in the concept of the metaverse, has waned somewhat, the vision of a metaverse persists, as shown by the efforts of Apple, Alphabet, Meta, Microsoft and other major software manufacturers. The terms ‘metaverse’ and ‘virtual reality’ are often confused with each other. In contrast to individual applications in the field of virtual reality, the metaverse represents the vision of connecting different virtual worlds. While VR applications are often closed-off and cannot be changed by their users, the metaverse represents an open world, which users can alter, and which also enables exchange and collaboration. Participation in the metaverse can take place via head-mounted displays or other devices, such as smartphones, tablets or computers. The goal is a far-reaching fusion of the real and virtual worlds. It is still not clear whether the term ‘metaverse’ in particular is shaped primarily by marketing departments or whether such applications will attract interest in the long term. The consequences of an increasing fusion of virtual and actual reality also remain unclear.
XR applications are capable of generating considerable added value – not only for companies that produce or adapt such applications, but also for companies that use these applications to adapt and optimise production processes. Even though barely any hardware for such applications is manufactured in Switzerland, this country is very well positioned to realise sophisticated software for XR: because of its universities, because Meta, Google and Microsoft have workplaces here, and because it is home to Disney Research Studios.
As the price of the corresponding hardware is decreasing, XR applications have become affordable for SMEs and private individuals, and they are now being used in many industries for a wide range of purposes. Thanks to corresponding frameworks provided by the hardware manufacturers, new XR products can be developed easily and relatively cost-effectively.
Especially for product-oriented companies in the manufacturing industry, technologies like XR offer an opportunity to develop new services.
Extended reality is a field for which there is also evident demand in the business world. For this reason, a relatively large number of projects are being funded. Due to the increasing interdisciplinarity of the projects though, it is becoming ever more difficult to obtain suitable funding, as the funding system operates in a very mono-disciplinary way. This phenomenon is not unique to this field, but is nevertheless having a major impact on the funding of XR projects.