What was not long ago deemed to be a niche and experimental technology, XR is maturing and finding its way into many applications. MS&T Special Correspondent Andy Fawkes reports on recent hardware developments.
XR, or eXtended Reality, is an umbrella term that covers virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR) and reflects how different levels of immersion in the virtual world can be delivered depending on the application. High-end headsets can now provide near-eye-resolution and increasing processing power is leading to lighter and smaller headsets with the ability to operate untethered. We are also witnessing significant growth in sales at the consumer end, raising awareness and growing the XR ecosystem.
“Our goal is to develop mixed reality that will replicate what you can see with the human perceptual system,” John Burwell told MS&T. Burwell is the Global Head of Simulation and Training at Finnish company Varjo. He explained that this goal was set to provide customers with a level of visual acuity that can be achieved in a dome-based simulator and “if we can provide that same capability for $10,000, that's where the big advantage comes in”.
Varjo is very focused on the enterprise market and their requirements-based approach is quite different from XR commodity providers “who are going to grab any technology they get to produce a $500 or $600 headset,” Burwell commented. Working closely with enterprise customers means that they can also capture valuable feedback. As an example, Burwell cited the issue of user comfort; so with their latest XR3, “we dramatically redesigned the whole product to focus on the human element, redesigning the headband based upon a 1950s welding helmet where the forehead strap takes most of the weight.”
Aneta Klimova, CMO of VR/MR specialists Vrgineers, told MS&T what differentiates their company is that they “only focus on pilots” and have supported a range of aircraft, including the F-35 and Typhoon. Their latest headset, the XTAL 3, was launched in January and offers an impressive field-of-view of 180° horizontal and 90° vertical together with 4K resolution displays and MR cameras. The pilot can sit in a fully functional physical cockpit replica, allowing them to experience realistic haptic feedback. When asked about competition from other vendors, Klimova said, “To be very honest, I'm quite happy for Varjo because they're pushing us to be better and better, and I think that our focus (on pilots) makes us a bit different.”
One recent Vrgineers client is Prague-based European Air Services who have developed a physical F-16 cockpit replica built on a raised motion platform, illustrating how modern XR technology can be integrated with other technologies.
Based in Czechia and the US, Vrgineers was founded in 2017 and already has prestige clients including the USAF and NASA and grown to some 50 staff.
Incremental and Revolutionary
Although the pace of technological change can seem very high and disruptive, XR companies often take an incremental approach to their designs. “We most recently went from an 87-degree field-of-view to 115-degree field-of-view” Varjo’s Burwell told us, “And sooner or later such improvements will become revolutionary because you'll hit certain limits that will enable new markets and enable new use cases even though it's really just based on incremental improvements.”
As one example, Varjo mixed-reality technology can now support pilots training side-by-side in a physical cockpit so that the pilots can see each other and interact with the physical switches and controls but the outside view is virtual. The technology’s flexibility is also illustrated by 60% of Varjo’s business being outside of training, in areas such as product design, with car companies being a significant market.
A Role for Consumer Grade XR
UK-based AVRT, founded in 2016, has been working with a number of police forces to develop training systems to support a range of scenarios that are difficult or expensive to replicate – for example, handling a Taser weapon. As AVRT’s Project Manager Andy Higgs explained, they looked at a number of headsets for their free roaming system and settled on the $299 Meta Quest 2 as “most of our customers are not habitual VR users” and the Quest 2 as an untethered headset “is really easy for someone who's never used VR before.” The positional accuracy of the system is enhanced by antilatency technology, which is highly accurate, flexible and easy to deploy. AVRT are now demonstrating their technology to the British Army as well.
AVRT’s training system exploits the Meta Quest 2 together with a headset-mounted antilatency tracking sensor and infrared floor markers. Image credit: AVRT.
Virtual Reality as a Service
To reduce the computing and power demands on a headset, companies are looking to stream virtual content over WiFi and 5G networks with the computing located in the Cloud, Edge or on-premises. One such company is US-based Brightline, who have partnered with Nvidia to exploit their “CloudXR” technology in order that XR users do not need to be physically tethered to a high-performance computer.
Brightline’s CEO Tyler Gates told MS&T, “We have built a lot of capabilities over the last couple of years, and we’ve learnt that the customer needs to be able to distribute immersive content at scale right off the bat.” CloudXR has been a “big game changer”, according to Gates, and it has given the company the ability to deliver “virtual reality as a service” when built on top of 5G and cloud architectures.