Since the Facebook, Inc., group was renamed Meta Platforms, Inc., the term "metaverse" has rapidly gained in importance and in this context the terms augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) too.
An international, interdisciplinary team of researchers is working intensively on researching these concepts and revealed that the term metaverse is often used as a synonym for AR and VR apps. Prof. Philipp Rauschnabel, from the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich, however, points out that AR and VR are just the gateways to the metaverse – comparable to how a smartphone or browser enables access to today's Internet.
The scientist emphasizes that the term metaverse has so far been more of a vision than an existing concept. Colloquially, the metaverse can also be described as a headless and decentralized 3D interaction space that reflects communities and is accessible via XR, as well as exhibiting properties of societies (e.g., transactions, presence of people in the form of avatars or currencies).
"In recent years, we have noticed a large number of terms that are sometimes used imprecisely, incorrectly and inconsistently," says Prof. Florian Alt from the CODE research center at the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich. “We took this as an opportunity to work out new definitions with leading experts from the XR community and to describe the differences theoretically.” After about a year of work, a practical overview framework has now emerged, called the xReality Framework.
“Unlike previous models, we are not looking at these new reality formats from a technical point of view, but from a user perspective," says Rauschnabel, questioning whether the physical environment is part of the experience or not. “If so, then it's AR, if not, then it's VR," he concludes.
Most VR applications take place via head mounted displays, commonly known as VR glasses. AR applications, however, can be used via stationary or mobile devices: AR glasses, for example, are approaching market maturity and patents for smart contact lenses point to the future.
"Some devices can do both, AR and VR," says Prof. Chris Hinsch from Grand Valley State University in Michigan, "but not both at the same time." In addition, the researchers do not use the term XR as extended reality, as is often the case. "This is rather misleading, because in VR, reality is not 'extended' but replaced," says Hamza Shahab of the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.
Mixed Reality vs Assisted Reality
"AR is not just AR," says Rauschnabel. If you look at classic AR applications, this virtual content can clearly be perceived as artificial, such as text or simple symbols in the field of view. Other applications can embed realistic and interactive 3D objects in the environment in such a way that people have difficulty distinguishing real objects from virtual ones. The authors of the research paper refer to the differentiator as "local presence", which ultimately describes the extent to which people perceive the objects in their local environment as real.
Atomistic vs holistic VR
Simple VR applications are possible via cardboards and standard smartphones. The scientists speak of "atomistic VR", meaning a very simple form of VR. “In contrast, there are environments that are characterized by a high level of detail and realism. These offer an experience in which users are actually in a fictitious place, the so-called ‘maximum form of telepresence’," says Alt. Because a wide variety of senses are addressed, the research group calls this form of VR "holistic VR".
I highly recommend reading the research paper What is XR? Towards a Framework for Augmented and Virtual Reality to understand why AR expert Prof. Rauschnabel concludes that knowledge, strategy and vision are still missing in this field. With the launch of nreal, AR is sure to go mainstream, so prepare for that.
By Daniela La Marca