Future Horizons of Extended Reality

As we have already learned, digital transformation in the context of the fourth industrial revolution is not limited to a fixed set of technologies – it’s much more complex and challenging than that. Digital transformation is not a set of technologies working in isolation, but an interconnected and interlinked ecosystem of several dynamic technologies in a constant process of mutation, adaptation and interaction.

XR and AI

In the context of today's digital transformation, artificial intelligence (AI) represents the brain of the entire digital ecosystem, as we mentioned in chapter one of this course. In this sense, AI combined with XR technologies will provide access to hyper contextualised information that will exponentially increase the analysis and decision-making capacity of the worker; the system will be constantly collecting data concerning user interactions and always improving by learning more about the environment.

XR and 5G

With the power of fast 5G mobile networks (10x more bandwidth than 4G and low latency) allied with AR/VR/MR, we will be always interconnected with our smartphone, anytime and anywhere. Not only us, but everything you can imagine will be interconnected (as mentioned in chapter 2 about IoT) producing vast amounts of data that will be transported on these new digital highways.

For example, with fast, high-quality 5G connections it will be possible for someone to be working remotely using XR technologies, such as a surgeon operating at a long distance, or a maintenance technician, or a teacher, or an artist. Will 5G be one of the missing pieces of the XR puzzle, allowing us to experience the true power of natural and full immersive XR?

XR and robotics

Another area of integration and expansion in the field of emerging technologies is that of XR and robotics. In this field, as already mentioned throughout this course, mixed environments and integrators of different technologies are one of the basic principles supporting the current digital transformation. In the field of robotics and XR, we must also consider AI, IoT and 5G. Focusing on XR and robotics, in the field of industrial manufacturing, for example, the control and supervision of the robotics components will increasingly evolve into operational environments that mix the real world with the digital (virtual). In other words, we will have automated or semi-automated operation using XR processes, either in test and deployment phases or in training.

In our daily lives, with robots being more and more integrated, our interaction and communication with these agents will be supported through mixed reality environments. XR will enhance and empower human-robot interaction (HRI) improving how robots can be operated and controlled, for example in dangerous and hazardous environments.

Changing realities and perceptions

All new technologies provoke changes in our daily lives, in the way we perceive ourselves, the way we relate and interact with others, the way we see the world, and in the measure of our vision of what we do and how we do it.

We are living through a deep and impactful digital transformation, where our interactions and relationships are becoming more and more digital, with one potential downside being that this can lead to diminishing our presence and relationships in the analogue (physical) world.

On the other hand, we are increasing our presence in the digital world and assuming new identities and opportunities.

It is important to reflect on the implications and challenges of this technology because it goes far beyond the mere manipulation of images and other digital objects. XR aims to change the way we interpret our reality, either through a more immersive environment or by superimposing the digital onto the real world. Now we have to understand that XR will increasingly impact the way we feel, how we see ourselves and how we perceive the interconnection between the real and digital worlds.

Cityscape with an overlay of virtual data and ads
Cityscape with an overlay of virtual data and ads

Ethical and social impacts of XR technologies

When we start being transported to immersive digital worlds, it may be difficult to clearly identify what is real, with replicas of analogue artifacts and digital models and interaction with both in mixed worlds. When we have replicas of the "analogue self" in “digital selves”, who guarantees my rights and which should prevail, the analogue or the digital? These are important questions and we should all be involved in the discussion and creation of rules and models that protect the rights of all.

In these new contexts it is crucial that we look and reflect on the different levels of impact brought about by the use and integration of these technologies into our lives. We will look at two different interconnected levels of impact, ethical and social (posted as questions).

Ethical and social questions to consider

  • How will our body adapt to long hours of immersive experiences, and what will be the psychological and physiological impacts of a virtual environment?

  • What kind of regulations will be necessary for relationships and interactions that occur in virtual worlds?

  • How should identity theft be regulated in virtual worlds?

  • What prevention and security measures should be implemented to ensure the integrity of these new realities?

  • How do we effectively separate the virtual world and the real world when there is an increasingly narrow space between them?

  • How do we ensure that companies that develop XR experiences do not collect data on our emotions and feelings?

  • How do we ensure that XR experiments are not used to induce ideas that lead to crimes and other illegal acts being committed?

  • How can we guarantee stereotypes are not perpetuated when digital avatars are created in virtual worlds?

  • How do you manage property rights, privacy and data protection in virtual worlds?

  • How do we protect anonymity and privacy when facial recognition is used in AR?

What needs to be done?

We need to develop a regulatory infrastructure for the development of XR experiences so we have legal protection if any of our rights are violated. It’s also crucial to establish an ethical and social framework that incorporates and contextualises all the doubts, concerns and issues related to the area. It should be mentioned that at this time we do not have clear and precise information about the negative effects of these technologies, for instance on our mind or on our perception of reality. We need research that provides feasible data that can be used to determine guidelines and recommendations for the development of XR technologies.

In this context it is worth mentioning the IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Extended Reality, which aims to define policy recommendations and produce white papers in order to build one standard or recommended practice focused on the ethics of XR.

We also need to ensure that such powerful technologies are developed with the principle of being used for the good of all.

Future possibilities: AR, VR and beyond

The future of VR and AR will be a quest to develop increasingly realistic and immersive experiences for work, leisure, social interaction, or any other part of our lives. The world is being digitalised. Analogue is increasingly being merged with digital, meaning the boundaries are becoming too blurry for us to distinguish our analogue life from our digital life. As this will become increasingly true in the future, the way we interact needs to be adapted.

XR, AR and VR will, perhaps, become the norm in how we interact with digital devices, providing us with the breakthrough from 2D to 3D interaction. More and better immersive experiences in areas from work to training to leisure will allow us to be more connected and engaged. XR will be integrated with other emerging technologies to augment our skills and capabilities as human beings, enhancing methods and processes that will support our future development.

For that to happen we will have to be very demanding as a society to ensure that the development of the technology is for all of us, and for the good of all. We also need to guarantee that everybody will have access to the technology and be able to use and manipulate it. It is also important to define the principles that support the inclusion of these technologies in several different contexts.

Next section
IV. XR and new job roles