TECH | Nov 12, 2020

The future is in Extended Reality

The areas of application of these new technologies in our everyday life of the future

A future awaits us in which the way we relate to technology will radically change, and since technology is a formidable process enabler, this radical change will profoundly affect our daily life, changing the way we relate to the world and the way we will work.

At the center of this change there is a paradigm that is not necessarily new, that of Extended Reality, which has not yet found its full and complete realization in the consumer world for purely technological and market reasons, but we know that technology evolves rapidly and new markets are often triggered thanks to the availability of new opportunities offered by technology itself.

Extended Reality is a model of interaction with reality and is the union of three existing models that currently offer some very interesting approaches, but which unfortunately currently have limited market penetration. The three models are: Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality.

“Virtual Reality” is a model of use of content and services based entirely on the interaction with artificial and simulated environments, which have no relationship with the physical reality in which the user lives.

In order to access virtual reality experiences, it is necessary to wear special helmets or fully immersive goggles which allow us to devote our entire attention to the virtual world, completely disconnecting ourselves from the physical reality of the world around us. This means being completely immersed in an artificial dimension and perceiving virtual reality as the only existing reality.

There are some rather interesting use cases on the market such as the use of content or of video games. While the use of content, such as films or concerts, has a basically passive approach, gaming has a natural need for interaction; for this reason, special devices are used that allow the user to interact with the artificial environment by giving commands to the video game.

The experience that derives from this type of use is much more intense and direct than the traditional use on screen. Think, for example, of what it can feel like to see a film from inside the scene, being able to move between the actors and changing the point of view simply by moving your head. Similarly, think of the type of experience you can have by driving a car on the track whilst being totally immersed in that kind of reality.

As you can imagine, this type of use tends to completely disconnect the user from the perception of physical reality, this means that it is necessary to be careful not to collide with objects or with the walls of the room should you decide to move inside a video game.

On the other hand, “Augmented Reality” does not require a complete detachment from physical reality, the user is immersed in his or her traditional environment, but this environment is enriched by inserting one or more layers of information between the user and reality.

In the simplest cases, a smartphone or tablet can be used to add information to what we are looking at on the screen. Think, for example, of the applications that can display the name of the mountains which we frame with our smartphone or those that provide us with information about a monument when we focus our lens on it. In this case the user is immersed in and has interactions exclusively with his/her physical reality, the information layers that are added serve exclusively to enrich it.

There are also more complex ways of using Augmented Reality, methods which do not rely on consumer tools, but on actual dedicated devices, such as helmets equipped with translucent glasses able to see both the physical reality through the glasses and the layers of information which are added to the reality; these layers will be projected onto the translucent lenses of the glasses. These are remarkably interesting devices which allow, for example, monitoring industrial plants, specialized training on complex procedures, remote support from specialists to technicians in the field.

There is also a model which allows you to interact simultaneously on both the physical and virtual planes and is called “Mixed Reality”.

During a Mixed Reality experience the user has a special device capable of adding layers of information to the physical reality, but it is also envisaged that he or she can interact with this information thanks to the use of special gestures, movements made with the hands in front of the framed scene and which lead to a real interaction with the non-physical component.

The user can therefore interact directly with physical reality, for example by opening a door, and through a gesture with the virtual component, for example by unlocking a virtual electronic lock that determines the real release of the physical lock. Tools of this type are already used in the industrial field by personnel assigned to the maintenance of machinery or vehicles: it is sufficient to frame a portion of the machinery, receive the information on the translucent display of the glasses, carry out the operations and confirm with the gestures.

Extended Reality is therefore a complex interaction model which is obtained by combining all these concepts and by taking the completeness of the experience which can be offered to the end user onto a different level.

For now, the concrete uses are exclusively in the business market; in order to bring this type of experience to the consumer world, it is necessary to wait for devices which are not too invasive to be launched onto the market, that the user will wear willingly and, above all, that offer a tangible added value to everyday life thanks to specific dedicated features. These devices will most likely be smart glasses, glasses with a great deal of technology on board and able to offer new functions through these innovative ways of interaction.

The smart glasses that we expect in the near future will be devices which are always connected and with a battery life that will allow a continuous use throughout the day, exactly the minimum level of quality that the user currently expects from a smartphone or from wearable devices such as smart watches. One of the unique features will be the possibility of changing the level of transparency of the lenses, which will be completely transparent for use as Augmented and Mixed Reality devices, or completely opaque to allow the semi-immersive experiences of Virtual Reality, such as using multimedia content or video games.

These devices will have the ability to take photographs or shoot videos; in their first versions they will be a sort of smartphone appendage, to which they will delegate much of the processing and storage, while in subsequent versions their degree of autonomy will increase and they will be able to carry out complex processing directly.

We will be able to control them thanks to special gestures or by voice. This level of interaction will allow us to activate and manage the features on board the device, features that in the future may be extended thanks to apps which can be downloaded from special stores, following the model which smartphones have now accustomed us to. Voice interaction will be particularly interesting; a higher-order function than we are used to, able to fully understand what we are asking for, to take into account the context and to perform complex and articulated tasks in an increasingly precise way. These devices will be available with clear or prescription lenses, so that they can be used by as many people as possible.

There are many areas of application, from the business world to that of training, from recreational to social use, up to actual applications which can save the user’s life.

The most common experience will consist in always having some layers of information of interest available in the visual field, such as GPS navigation coordinates if we are moving in an area that we do not know or the types of shops if we are shopping. This introduces further business models for companies, such as the ability to offer special offers which can appear directly in the field of vision of the potential buyer who is in the area.

In tourist areas or in museums, we will be able to access information on the monuments around us or on the paintings we are looking at and we will not have to do anything but look at them, having activated the desired information layer or the appropriate museum app. The tourist experience can also be accessed remotely, by visiting some places in virtual mode, partly to preview them and decide which ones to visit physically, partly to satisfy our curiosity to see what places which for various reasons are inaccessible are like, as for example, an immersive exploration of the Moon or Mars aboard one of the rovers.

We will be able to make purchases directly from our living room by moving inside virtualized physical stores or shops which do not actually exist physically, but in which we will be able to find the products we need, see how the items that interest us work, try on clothing which we like directly inside the platform and make purchases by paying only with our biometrics.

The world of work will also be impacted by this revolution.

Where we may now be unhappy with the level of interaction which can be obtained through a videoconference meeting, tomorrow we will be able to attend business meetings in virtual places, with the holograms of our colleagues next to us, all around the same table or the same project, but in reality each one remaining in his/her physical environment. This modality will greatly improve the productivity of smart working by enabling traditional behavioral models even in fully virtualized environments.

This modality can also be used to carry out remote training within a virtual classroom or to allow remote assistance from an expert colleague to a collaborator in the field, in order to optimize time and resources by making those in the field able to operate with the help and direct supervision of those who have the expertise but are instead on the other side of the world.

We are facing an epochal revolution which will introduce new behavioral models that seem strange to us today, as in the past much of our behavior today would have seemed strange to us. On the train or in a line at the supermarket we are used to seeing people lost in their smartphones reading, playing, browsing on social media or accessing multimedia content. The same behavioral model will shift to smart glasses, with the difference that we will no longer need to have the smartphone screen in front of our eyes as we will constantly have the screen of our glasses in front of our eyes.

It will be absolutely necessary to ensure that these interaction patterns do not turn into behavioral disorders and that the applications on these devices are not designed to cause addiction, but to provide useful services to users. Likewise, it will be very important to protect the users themselves from the possible misuse of their data. We are facing a significant change in people’s behavior; we must do everything necessary to enjoy the benefits of this transformation and to mitigate its risks as much as possible.

Massimo Canducci

During 2020, I carried out a cycle of lessons on this subject for the Engineering’s Master Class within the initiative Operazione Risorgimento Digitale.