The user interface of the future won’t be a screen that sits on your desk. It won’t be a screen that sits in your pocket, either. It will be the real world itself – with a little help from technology. By mixing the digital and the physical, Extended Reality will truly enhance and enrich our lives.

Extended Reality. It does have a certain ring to it. It feels solid, like something that should make sense. But what is it, actually? Beyond being one of the cornerstone themes in Accenture’s Technology Vision for 2018, that is. What does it really mean? To you, to your business, to your customers?

Well, it’s a combination of technologies. Virtual, augmented and mixed reality, to be precise. At least, those are the categories that define the landscape today. But that landscape is evolving – quickly. New hardware and software are hitting the market at lightning speeds, so don’t be too surprised if you hear other exotic terminology tossed around in this context as time goes by. For now, though, these remain the big three that define the spirit of Extended Reality.

Of course, each technology has its own unique advantages. Virtual reality puts users in a cocoon of sorts. It creates a brand new digital reality for you to enjoy, closing your senses off from the outside world. Augmented reality, on the other hand, is all about adding new insights to your perception of the world around you. Google ARCore and Apple ARKit, technologies that are already riding along in your pocket, are great examples of this. And then there’s mixed reality, which combines the features and benefits of both in a single package.

What it boils down to is this: whenever there’s a chance that digital experiences might touch the physical space, there’s an opportunity there to improve interactions. But the digital world exists as ones and zeroes, while our physical reality consists of objects we can see and touch. Extended Reality (or XR) merges these two worlds, bringing the digital into the physical and vice versa.

Erasing the Borders between Digital and Physical

Image: Technology Vision 2018 - TRend 2: Extended Reality - Blue IconRight now, as we speak, our society is generating an ocean of data. As of 2018, more than 50% of the global population is online. That’s four billion active internet users – and an astonishing number of them are mobile. In Q3 2017, global data traffic from mobile users alone already exceeded 11 exabytes. As the Internet of Things matures and artificial intelligence finds its legs, that number can only go up.

In terms of information, we have an embarrassment of riches. But when we interact with it, we’re more or less only left with the embarrassment. Our physical world has three perfectly natural, intuitive dimensions for us to move around in, while all that data is limited to the flat planes of our screens. Our data interactions are literally missing one degree of freedom.

Extended Reality is going to give that freedom back to us. Smart glasses and bionic contact lenses will infuse digital information into the physical space, erasing the boundaries between the two. Instead of merely wandering along the shore, we’ll be able to dive into our expanding ocean of data and discover new user experiences and value propositions in the depths.

Imagine flying to London for an important presentation. From the moment you step off the plane, your smart glasses offer an optimized route to your destination, painting unobtrusive waypoints in your field of vision while keeping track of public transit updates via your smartphone. One app highlights restaurants by correlating menu options with your preferences, another translates conversations into your native language and offers advanced English tips. You reach your client’s offices with time to spare and park yourself in the lobby, entering focus mode to go over your work one last time. When you walk into the room, you’re ready. You grant access to those present, knowing they’ll be able to see your prototype via their own glasses as you demonstrate its features.

The possibilities of Extended Reality are limited only by your imagination

Experiences like these may seem far-fetched, but they’re already on the horizon. The possibilities of Extended Reality are limited only by your imagination and the use cases you can build.

Extended Reality in the Here and Now

So, the future’s bright – but what about tomorrow? The actual tomorrow, right around the corner, here in 2018? What’s next for Extended Reality in the short term?

For starters, these technologies will become more mobile. Everything is going wireless. It just makes sense to leverage the technology we already carry around instead of limiting ourselves to certain scenarios. The average consumer isn’t going to start lugging their desktops with them, but there’s already a smartphone in every pocket.

Speaking of smartphones, we can expect software to make Extended Reality more accessible as well. Between Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore, mobile devices will be increasingly capable of driving augmented reality applications with each passing year.

At the same time, prices are going down. Early forays into the VR, AR and mixed reality space were eye-wateringly expensive, especially from the consumer’s perspective. Now that technology has matured, hardware price points are dropping from thousands to hundreds of euros, putting Extended Reality within reach of a larger group of consumers.

And those consumers are starting to embrace these new experiences in a big way. We’re not in the Layar era anymore, where augmented reality is seen as a nerdy gimmick. At its peak, Pokémon Go logged tens of millions of users, exposing a large cross-section of society to the possibilities of Extended Reality. With a Harry Potter AR experience slated for release later this year, it’s safe to say that interest will only keep increasing. Which begs the question: how can your business get in on this?

It All Starts with Experience

One of the most important characteristics of Extended Reality is that, well, it’s reality. If you want to know what it is, if you want to know what it can do, you need to experience it first-hand. Now, there’s obviously a lot of content out there, this article included, that can give you a basic idea of its potential. But to be honest, that pales in comparison to the real thing.

If you want to know what it can do, you need to experience it first-hand

We could tell you that Microsoft’s HoloLens has a 35° field of view while the Oculus Rift boasts an FOV of 110°, but what does that really tell you? These are technologies that let you interface with information and the world around you in uniquely new ways. They add dimensions to your perception that would be impossible otherwise. To understand that, you need a real-world reference frame. And that means hands-on experience. Which is a lot of fun, by the way. We’d be happy to hook you up.

Image: Technology Vision - Trend 3: extended Reality

Users, Users, Users

We can’t emphasize this too much. Really, we’ve tried. Knowing your users is the single most important step in seizing the opportunities of Extended Reality. Put yourself in their shoes. What does a day in their life look like? Where can this technology really make a difference for them? In which situations will it help you, as a value provider, to make their lives easier, simpler, more efficient, or more fun?

Using Extended Reality as a marketing vehicle might seem tempting, but it’s really just a waste of good budget and energy. Technology isn’t in it for the technology – it wants to be helpful. That’s what it’s here for. Understanding what your customers are secretly hoping for in a user experience will allow you to craft that experience and delight them with it.

Get Ready to Experiment

You’ll be experimenting a lot. All the time, if we’re being completely honest. That’s a good thing. In fact, it’s the best thing. Because it means that you get to keep learning and improving and delivering exciting new features.

Image: Technology Vision 2018 - Trend 2: Extended Reality - Statistic - by Accenture

Extended Reality is a relatively new space to work in. There are many blank spots left on the map for you to discover and claim. At the same time, people aren’t accustomed to using these solutions on a day-to-day basis. That means you’ll need to take it slowly, which is perfect for lean, user-centric innovation.

Start small. Take stock of the challenges your customers face and ask yourself if Extended Reality can help solve them. If the answer is yes, try to figure out which specific type of solution would work best. Develop use cases and prototypes. Fail fast and test often, using user feedback to craft next-gen experiences that offer value that isn’t available anywhere else.

Okay, So Now What?

We’re getting to the end here. Just bear with us for a few more minutes. We’ve already painted a picture of what Extended Reality can do in the future – short-term and long. How it can and will change the world as we know it. Why you might want to get in on the action and where you should start if you do. So, what more can we possibly say?

How about this: Extended Reality is real. This is not science fiction or a Hollywood pipe dream. Real companies are doing this right now. They’re doing real experiments, building real solutions and getting real results. Maintenance workers are using AR glasses in the field to make tough repairs easier. Car mechanics are doing the same. Consumers are hunting cute digital creatures with their phones and paying for the privilege. It’s real and it’s here.

Extended Reality is transformative, disruptive and just plain fun to work with. Whether you look at hard-core business applications or lighthearted consumer experiences, these technologies have a unique ability to put a smile on the user’s face. Not through novelty, but through actual added value. If that’s not enough to get you interested, we don’t know what is.

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Do you want to experience at first hand what Extended Reality can do for you and your organization? Book an inspiring and life-changing workshop at the MOBGEN:Lab, part of MOBGEN / Accenture Interactive, in Amsterdam. Feel free to contact Jordy Bossen for more info.

Or get inspired and learn what the other Technology Vision 2018 trends can mean for your future business. Sign up for an exciting and meaningful deep dive at Accenture’s NanoLab in Heerlen. Please contact Kelly Claessens for more info.