AR, VR, MR, XR Demystified

.If 2019 was the year of automation in customer communication — a pretty sure bet judging by all those high-functioning chatbots you see on websites these days — it's fair to say 2020 is still up for grabs. Whatever avenues your business is exploring, it's worth learning the types of augmented reality (AR) and their relative strengths, since these are tools that will likely enhance your business, its customer-facing experience, or some combination of the two in the near future.

In this briefing, we'll look at the fundamentals of augmented reality — including unpacking the differences between AR, VR, MR, and XR — and its impact on customer communication.

Learning the Types of Augmented Reality: Video Matters

Our world is dominated by video imagery. From the advent of the television to the emergence of democratized platforms such as YouTube, the moving image has captured the world's imagination for the better part of a century now, and things don't appear to be changing any time soon. Cisco claims video will account for over 80% of data usage in the next two years, as Data Centre Dynamics reports.

The widespread use of video only makes sense when you think about the way we communicate. We tend to speak at around 150 words per minute, according to Harvard Business Review, whereas average typing speed is roughly 40 words per minute, making video (with associated audio) naturally better for disseminating information. Further, video gives life to critical secondary modes of communication, such as facial expression and body language.

Think of it like this: Video is to customer communication what the internal combustion engine is to transportation. Following that analogy, then, AR is to video what high-density traffic systems like the autobahn are to motor vehicles. Your car can go down a gravel road just fine, certainly, but it reaches its maximum potential when it's using a medium designed to make it shine. Communications are the same way.

AR, VR, MR, and XR: The Types of Augmented Reality

Augmented reality is just one part of a larger paradigm known as extended reality (XR). Let's take a quick look at what each of these means before diving deeper.

  • VR: Virtual reality is a fully immersive experience, delivered using a headset. With VR, an entire environment is rendered before the user's eye — elements from their real-world surroundings factor little into what they see, if at all.
  • AR: By contrast, augmented reality adds computer-generated elements to the real environment surrounding the user.
  • MR: Mixed reality combines VR and AR to allow real-world elements to interact with computer-generated elements: an enemy combatant in an MR game ducking behind the player's real-world couch, for one example.
  • XR: Finally, extended reality is a blanket term describing VR, AR, MR, and similar technologies.

 

 
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Augmented Reality: A Deeper Look

As above, AR takes things from the user's real-world surroundings and adds to them, usually via the camera and screen on the user's smartphone. The immensely popular mobile game Pokemon Go illustrates this concept well: The player can interact with creatures that appear to be in the "real world" on the smartphone screen, mixing reality with the game's fantastical graphics.

AR means more than laying graphics over the top of an image, however. The medium's true potential lies in laying real data sources over the user's real world.

Today, AR is largely tied to the smartphone. In the coming decade, however, you can expect a slew of tools to take AR places currently rendered impractical by smartphone operation: guided AR tours of historical spots (or local sales!) via coming technologies like Apple's rumored smartglasses project, for example.

Bridging Gaps in Knowledge

If you've used Google Translate, you've seen another compelling use of AR that, like many iterations of the technology, has yet to reach full potential. The app takes text in one language and attempts to translate it to another in real time, a functionality that's truly amazing when it works properly. Keeping this basic concept in mind, imagine how similar tools could help your customers in the near future.

What if parcel delivery drivers could see an image of the consignment simply by pointing their phone camera at the package? Finding the right package amongst hundreds of others in the back of their van could take much less time if the app could also zero in on the package they're looking for.

How about an app that overlaid the actual functions of all the buttons on a TV remote? Or a guided look through all the sales in a store, relevant to the user's interest per their recent transactions?

All these use cases follow a similar trend: unlocking data that might otherwise stay obscured. Harnessed properly, that concept could make it far easier for your team to deliver your product and for your customers to make the most of it.

Imagination, Improved

Returning to retail, IKEA's Place app takes AR's basic concept in an exciting new direction: It gives users an idea of what a given piece of furniture might look like in any room of their home.

Now imagine combining AR with a video API, such as OpenTok, to enable your contact center agents to see and manipulate the combined image. Used creatively, the customer's home, office, or other open area could become an instant showroom, with your agents able to fully guide the customer through various aspects of their purchase (sales, setup, support, and numerous others) via the shared image.

Following that, then, AR could be the perfect tool to guide every stop in your sales funnel.

AR vs. VR vs. MR: Types of Augmented Reality Further Explained

Unlike AR, VR's place in the communication marketplace isn't entirely clear. While various virtual chat rooms have made great use of headsets and may show a rudimentary version of tools businesses may put forth when and if the technology becomes more widespread, there's also little doubt that adoption, as it stands, is a major concern: AR currently carries AR/VR adoption rates due to its lower barriers to entry, and VR headset use hasn't caught on among qualified PC users as one might hope.

This isn't to say VR is without near-future use cases, however, and the heads-up displays in modern cars illustrate the use quite well. Today, a high-end car features on-windshield displays that show important data like speed, speed limit, and miles to destination. In the future, when driverless cars roam the roads, the traditional "windshield" may be a full-fledged AR screen, with all information on the screen digitized for a cleaner, easier-to-use experience.

For customer communication, mixed reality offers intriguing possibilities. What if an auto repair student could repair a virtual vehicle with little more than a headset and the right haptic controllers? The impact on learning would be so much more compelling than with virtual tools and much cheaper than tinkering with a real engine — and that's just one example of MR's near-future utility.

Where from Here?

To be sure, AR hasn't hit critical mass yet — businesses still have time to adjust. That said, the wave is coming. As technology improves and companies find more and better methods to engage their customers, it only makes sense that a grouping of technologies designed to enhance the user's reality would have major applications.

So, no, you don't need to be fully invested in the AR marketplace to survive yet. But you should be thinking about your business's relationship with the emerging new technology class because consumers are certainly considering their own.

Alyssa Mazzina
Alyssa Mazzina

Alyssa is a Content Marketing Manager at Vonage. She's an experienced writer and editor specializing in communications technology and software. Alyssa lives in central California with her husband, 2 kids, 4 dogs, 2 snakes, and 2 rats.

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