Extended reality checklist – analyzing XR market prospects

The extended reality checklist is challenging for device makers, but Apple joining the XR race points to big revenue opportunities for firms.
11 September 2023

In fashion: the race is on to develop XR devices, but hardware makers have an extended reality checklist of challenges to overcome.

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Apple’s Vision Pro announcement at WWDC 2023 has brightened the spotlight on prospects for extended reality (XR) and spatial computing. And while tomorrow’s ‘Wunderlust’ event – broadcast from the Steve Jobs theatre at Apple’s ring-shaped US headquarters – is expected to focus on the iPhone 15, this doesn’t mean that Tim Cook has cooled his XR ambitions. The extended reality checklist is challenging to complete, but having tech giants like Apple join the development race highlights the market opportunities that success could bring.

Definitions and terminology – what is XR?

Virtual reality makes it possible for users to be immersed in different worlds and has applications in industrial training, education, gaming, and entertainment – to list just a few markets of interest. Augmented reality overlays virtual experiences on top of real-world views – for example, so that shoppers can picture products in their home before buying. And extended reality plays out that vision further by giving developers access to a wide range of sensor channels and video feeds to create ever more compelling digital experiences for users.

On TechHQ we’ve written about how real-world video combined with eye-tracked, high-resolution digital imagery is helping firms build simulators capable of soaring to new heights in realism. Digital technology that lets users put their hands on actual control dashboards to manipulate a virtual world benefits rescue teams, crane operators, and other users of heavy machinery – allowing them to practice their skills safely and affordably.

But that only touches the surface of what’s possible with XR devices and software. Concepts such as spatial computing utilizing heads-up display (HUD) technology could make today’s desktop computer monitors feel like chalkboards. And the space-saving prospects for users of moving giant displays into the virtual world are huge.

Smartglasses have other benefits across industrial sectors, providing workers with essential information in their line of sight while keeping hands free to carry out tasks such as maintenance or product fulfillment. And the field of view can be piped back to technology experts at headquarters when a second opinion is required.

XR device technology can also help to plug skills gaps, as it opens the door to keeping senior engineers on the payroll. Troubleshooting skills can be called upon remotely, by giving staff access to VR kit. And the combination gives companies access to valuable knowledge, while enabling flexible working for employees who may have grown tired of traveling to client sites after a long career on the road.

Healthcare is likely to be another beneficiary as device designs progress and developers work their way through the extended reality checklist and add more features to wearables. There’s already growing interest in so-called virtual wards where patients remain at home and their health status is monitored by hospital teams thanks to remote data connections.

Hardware challenges of delivering a flawless XR experience

The opportunities for virtual reality are mind-blowing for companies and consumers. And that’s long been the case. Ideas are in abundance, but the tricky part is developing hardware to make those concepts real.

Considering an extended reality checklist, hardware has to deliver on multiple fronts. Chips need to be powerful to handle high-resolution graphics, yet compact to suit the challenging form factor of wearables. Low-latency performance is a must-have to avoid users feeling nauseous as they navigate the twists and turns of their virtual world.

Not only do displays need to be free of any signs of motion blur, those miniature screens – one for each eye – should, ideally, provide pin-sharp visuals too. The more realistic the image, the better the user experience. Also, considering spatial computing, displays need to be able to render documents and company reports with ease and offer readability at small font sizes.

As well as housing processors and displays, XR devices require the integration of multiple cameras. Activities to be supported include eye-tracking, video pass-through, and gesture recognition – for example, reference designs can monitor facial expressions and lip movements.

Also, the equipment needs to be powered while remaining lightweight and portable, which can lead to some difficult design choices. Ideally, wearable XR headsets are self-contained, but meeting energy requirements can mean plugging into an external battery pack – for example, as with Apple’s Vision Pro.

However, developers no doubt expect advances in battery technology to reach the point where having a long device lifetime between charges isn’t so much at odds with battery pack dimensions. And looking at other device categories, there’s evidence for movement in this direction.

For example, consider Apple’s first iPad back in 2010 – the unit, weighing as much as a heavy book, was at the top end of what users would want to hold for the duration of a long-haul flight (the timescale set by the design team). However, a decade later, improvements in battery technology – together with other gains in hardware efficiency – enable not just slimmer iPad designs, but ones that stay powered for longer.

Mobile computing and why XR needs its app store moment

The fact that tech giants such as Microsoft and Meta have invested millions of dollars in developing XR experiences speaks to the challenge of meeting all of the demands of the extended reality checklist. Virtual reality and related products are at the intersection of a range of technologies, and that gives developers a huge amount of options to play with.

“We work at the intersection of computer vision, AI, graphics, 5G optimized and cloud-enabled solutions to create the intelligent perception of the world around us,” said Eduardo Esteves, VP of Engineering at Qualcomm International, referring to XR platforms that support various designs from augmented reality glasses to mixed reality headsets. “It’s exciting to be part of it because it is a transformation of technology, not unlike what mobile internet and smartphones were 15 – 20 years ago.”

In many ways, completing the extended reality checklist is about developing not just smartglasses and virtual reality headsets, but a new class of mobile computing devices. And looking at how smartphones have succeeded globally, paints a promising picture for mobile computing that goes far beyond the capabilities of handheld devices.

There are caveats though. Hardware represents only part of the success story for smartphones. Mobile devices have vibrant app store ecosystems to thank for their global popularity. And makers of XR hardware recognize this, with firms reaching out to developers and encouraging them to build apps for the next dimension in mobile computing.