The Evolution of XR Hardware

October 13, 2020

Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Reality (MR) all fall under the umbrella of Extended Reality (XR) technology. While the core concepts of the technology have existed well before the 2000s, the hardware was not generally available for a commercial audience until a few years ago. Prior to this several companies had attempted at-home consoles, but those were very limited in their capabilities and usually ended up flopping as they were bulky and not able to actually capture a truly immersive experience.

Modern headsets started arriving after the massive success of the Oculus Rift on Kickstarter and their subsequent purchase by Facebook in 2014.  Benefiting from the miniaturization of electronics because of the smartphone market, these modern headsets are stuffed with gyroscopes, HD screens, and motion sensors. XR headsets are now able to create fully realized immersive environments that can be explored and have a wide range of applications. In the last four years, headsets have become viable for more than just the home enthusiast, and many companies and organizations increasingly utilize these capabilities of VR for collaboration, education, and training.

Today's modern XR headset can be one of 3 main types: Standalone, Tethered, and Augmented Reality.

Tethered headsets are powerful tools for immersive simulations. These devices link into a dedicated computer in order to create high fidelity environments. Due to the equipment required, these devices are more costly than a standalone headset and are usually shared between a department or sit in an arcade. These headsets have more variety for integrations to improve metric capturing and input control in the simulations. Haptic gloves, biometric eye-tracking, and stick and throttles can all be used in conjunction with a tethered headset to help create a powerful immersive simulator. Tethered headsets have been the choice for companies that need to train in a very high fidelity environment, and can also provide a strong foundation for biometric capture and analysis. Surgeons, airmen, and machinists use headsets like the Oculus Rift, VIVE Pro, HP Reverb G2, and the Varjo VR series for this level of complex training. Varjo especially has done some great work with their high-resolution displays, eye tracking, hand tracking, and pass-through technologies. The recently announced HP Reverb G2 VR headset with Omnicept is another impressive piece of technology that includes high-resolution displays, eye-tracking, and even an electrocardiogram, which can provide insights into the physiological state of participants while they are learning in a simulation. This opens up opportunities to tailor learning and adapt the experiences to suit the subjective experiences of the individual.  

In recent years, standalone headsets like the Oculus Quest, Pico Neo, and Vive Focus Plus have come to market, and provide the most accessible immersive experiences available. These devices allow users to access immersive content without the need for a dedicated high-end computer. Descended from Mobile VR (like the Google Cardboard and Samsung GearVR), these personal devices are highly portable and are being utilized by educators and companies alike for distance learning and training. These headsets have been heavily embraced by the DoD for enhancing pilot training as they help bring the immersion of the tethered headsets to a more comfortable, affordable, and scalable form factor. With the recent release of the Oculus Quest 2, it is evident that the market for standalone kits will continue to grow and the hardware will continue to evolve. The Pico Neo 2 Eye for example includes all the benefits of a standalone headset experience, with the addition of eye-tracking, allowing your instructors to demonstrate their expertise not just with their hands and voice, but also with their eyes. In critical scenarios, what you look at can make a huge difference, and being able to measure and visualize that kind of data with the benefits of a standalone system are significant.  

Finally the Augmented reality (AR) headsets - the long imagined sci-fi wearable computer that can overlay information and holograms into the real world. If virtual reality can take you anywhere (virtually), augmented reality can bring you anything (virtually). AR as a core technology has been available on most modern smartphones for a few years. PokemonGo (the app that everyone and their kid had a few summers ago) is a great example that utilizes the camera, sensors, and global positional systems to overlay simulated characters in the real-world. AR headsets work in a very similar way, integrating multiple sensors and cameras to measure the world and provide an overlay that understands and adapts to the real-world environment. The applications for this are broad, from a heads-up display showing important information while you are interacting in your physical environment, to more immersive experiences that can augment your real world with virtual agents and interactive simulations. Unlike the tethered and standalone headset types mentioned before, you are still able to see the real-world around you - your environment and your surroundings - with the augmented layers. Google Glass (announced in 2012) was the first AR device that aimed to build a market for wearable computing. It allows for a small overlay of information, and natural voice-based hands-free input and wireless connectivity. This powerful combination demonstrated the potential for having an ambient digital assistant that could present you information anytime, anywhere. The potential it demonstrated is still rippling through our consumer devices, like smart-home speakers and voice assistants. In 2016 the Microsoft Hololens took the core concept of a wearable computer into a new dimension, by projecting 3D holograms into the real world, and combining the many sensors of the device into a natural input general-purpose computer for the Enterprise. Meanwhile, the secretive Magic Leap startup captured the imagination of many creatives, who helped build compelling prototypes for entertainment and education. Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Snapchat, Intel, Qualcomm -  all of these companies are increasingly investing in and researching the capabilities that XR headsets have been able to demonstrate, and they see its potential as the next general-purpose computing device after mobile and tablets. Here at HTX Labs, we’ve been growing and adapting our platform and solutions to feature the best-in-class capabilities of these devices, and make the deployment and management of this hardware easier from an enterprise context.

Choosing what devices best fit the goals of your training program doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Each headset has different capabilities and compromises that can take your training experience to a whole new level. While evaluating the use of XR in your training program, understanding your goals, your audience, and how you measure success will help to narrow down what headsets and capabilities best fit your needs. Whether you’re evaluating XR for fully immersive content or to add additional immersion to in-person training, HTX Labs' EMPACT® Platform can help you manage all of your immersive content across your company’s entire fleet.

As highlighted in the timeline below, XR hardware has changed rapidly over the past 5 years, we look forward to what the next 5 years of immersive technology will bring.