When Venture Capitalist, AR thought leader, and Executive Producer of Augmented World Expo (AWE) Ori Inbar kicked off the event on May 29th with the phrase: “Go XR or go extinct!” I knew it was over. I had officially lost the war of words. As my old boss Ted Leonsis used to say, “it is better to win than to be right.” So, to the winners, I say I am dropping my objection to the use of “XR”, or “X-Reality”. I was even wearing my XR t-shirt the last day of the AWE Conference. But I still think XR is an annoying made up word that conveys only the agony of our confusion.
Making a counterpoint to Stephanie Llamas, VP of XR for Superdata Research, who wrote the first chapter of my book, Charlie Fink’s Metaverse, An AR Enabled Guide to VR & AR, I objected to the new acronym “XR” then, which has replaced “MR” as the umbrella term for immersive computing, including mobile AR, MR, and VR. I’m not exactly sure who is to blame for all this confusion but my top suspects are Microsoft and Qualcomm, which actually sought to trademark XR last fall. Microsoft is guilty of an earlier sin, torturing the word hologram, which by definition must be seen with the naked eye (look it up). It is quite a stretch to call The HoloLens a Holographic Computing. My friends at Microsoft are slightly embarrassed when I explain this because the people I interact with are basically nice, guileless people. Still. Who owns the unintended consequences of decisions made by the marketing department?
Llamas correctly pointed out in the book that consists of language is critical in the developing consumer market for VR in my book about VR and AR, to which she contributed the first of several chapters. We have to agree on what to call things. Microsoft put MR out there as the name for the concept in 2016, appropriating the Milgram scale, created in 1994 by two academics, Paul Milgram and Fumio Kishino. Convenietly, on either side of the new “Microsoft Mixed Reality Spectrum”, where the company’s HoloLens and fully occluded Windows MR VR device. Microsoft was immediately accused of seeking to brand the VR world with WindowsMR. Since WindowsMR headsets are not exactly flying off the shelves, despite attractive pricing, it doesn’t really matter anymore. That was almost ten months ago, for god’s sake.
My objections to the appropriation and misuse of the of the words MR and XR are well known. Until my formal surrender today, I insisted on using the more cumbersome AR and VR, keeping them separate. One of the key points of my book is that AR and VR do not belong on a spectrum of immersion. While VR is for immersion. AR is a tool, like the club and the wheel and the steam engine, that makes humankind better, faster and stronger. Both the quest for immersion and the need for augmentation are deeply rooted in humans. VR is spiritual and experiential. It demands a willing suspension of disbelief, while AR needs the real world to exist, otherwise, there would be nothing to augment. It is true both run on computers and require optics, bandwidth, and storage, but computers do a lot of things. Also, this doesn’t account for the vast majority of AR today, which is Heads Up Displays, mobile phones, and monocular microdisplays. My biggest complaint at about XR is that it conflates AR and VR.
“It’s just too nuanced not to combine VR and AR into one term. Consumers just will not understand those differences,” Llamas says. “We need to have a unifying terminology that makes it easy for consumers to understand. Until the separations are clearer, X (standing in for an unknown, or variety of variables) Reality serves as a simple way to encompass everything that digitally alters reality.”
Second, both MR and XR redefine important terms. MR previously referred to mixing reality, so when your hand hits a virtual ball, it has real physics and bounces, or when, in VR, smell, heat, smoke or other elements are added, mixing reality. XR has long referred to bio-augmentation, which is the sort of thing Patti Maes does at the MIT Media Lab. What are we to call these now? So. Objection #2: Redefinition and Appropriation.
Objection #3, Dishonesty. In January, 2017, the companies discussed in this story approved a press release from the technology committee of the Consumer Technology Association, which provided definitions of AR, VR, and MR, and accounted for their distinctions. These definitions have been ignored since the day they were was released, with Microsoft almost immediately following with an announcement that appropriated Windows MR. Which is a fully occluded VR headset. Raise your hand if you are not confused.
Finally, Objection #4: Market confusion. Since there’s no real consumer market here to confuse, we’re mainly still talking to ourselves. “While there are benefits to unifying definitions, I’m not convinced the benefits would be noticed as the market develops. It’ll be brands that mold the minds of consumers,” said writer and producer Michael Eichenseer. “It won’t be Apple’s AR/MR/XR Glasses, it’ll be iGlass. User’s won’t refer to iGlass’s AR/MR/XR display, it’ll be iGlassOS.” Eichenseer is right, of course, but what about the hundreds, maybe millions of people who are studying what we do. This is the Internet in 1993. What we call things is going to matter, and soon. Maybe they are the most important audience now.
“What I have noticed is that those of us in the industry are using XR, but I see very few people outside of our industry using XR. Whenever I bring up the term XR at a marketing conference (most often than not), I would say 90% of folks have never heard the term,” Says Kathy Hackl, Futurist at You Are Here Labs and co-author of Marketing New Realities. “I’m all for using XR within our industry, but I’ not sure the mass market is ready for XR as a term. While it provides clarity for our industry, I worry it might make it harder to comprehend for the mass market.”
You see my point? XR is the devil. It should never have been invented. Long live XR.
Therefore, this is the June 2018 Fink “official” definitions of XR, AR, MR, VR, and bioaugmentation. I reserve the right to be defeated again in the future.
Virtual Reality – A fully occluded world in which the digital completely replaces the physical world.
Augmented Reality – Any technology that adds digital content to the physical world. There are many modes of AR. Some of them are Heads Up Displays (HUDs), Reflective AR (Lenovo/Disney Jedi Challenge, Mira Prism), Mobile (ARKit and AR Core), Monocular Microdisplays (Glass, Kopin, RealWear, Toshiba), Waveguide (HoloLens, ODG, Vuzix)) and Lightfield (Magic Leap) devices. Sound plays a role as well. Vuzix and ODG incorporate Alexa.
Mixed Reality – Any virtual or augmented reality where the real and digital worlds interact. Example 1: through the camera, on your cell phone you see a ball. You hit it with your free hand, and it appears to bounce off the real wall. Example 2: when temperature changes, wind, smell, touch and/or physical props are incorporated into full occluded VR experience, usually in a public installation like The Void, Zero Latency, and Dreamscape.
XR – The VR and AR industry, taken as a whole, including research into wearables, bioaugmentation, and invisible computing.
Bio and Experimental Augmentation (BA and EA) are not yet widely known outside academia but will probably replace the previous uses of XR.