Illustration by Rouba Shabou

XR Explained

It’s 2020, and our reality has changed. Due to COVID19, many of us are working from home, a new way of doing business that requires a dependency on technology like never before. Platforms like Zoom help us to maintain connection and communication with clients, team members, and sometimes family and friends.

As a result of social distancing and travel restrictions, advanced technologies such as augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality (MR) are no longer distant possibilities but instead strong considerations for our new emerging reality. These three types of technologies are known as extended reality (XR). What is XR? It’s an umbrella term used to classify the existence of AR, VR, and MR technologies.

XR has slowly made its way into industries such as education, medicine, entertainment, training, real estate, gaming, and several others. It has yet to become mainstream. In fact, 34% of company stakeholders predict that XR will become mainstream in 4 to 5 years.

What is AR?

Working remotely has helped to expose more people to AR technologies. For example, the conference application Zoom has a feature that allows individuals to change their backgrounds to either maintain a level of professionalism or to disguise the fact that their cat is sitting on the couch behind them playing with an old sock. This feature integration has opened up a world of possibilities for individuals who wish to transport themselves to another location like an island in the Caribbean.

Video conference call applications have features that allow participants to use various artificial backgrounds.
Video conference call applications have features that allow participants to use various artificial backgrounds. Image credit TrippSavvy.

What exactly is AR anyway? It’s a technology that layers computer-generated designs on top of real environments. These images can be created by the individual like those used in a virtual conference call or they can be pre-designed like the arrows and indicators within a Google AR map feature.

The purpose of XR technologies is to enhance our current experiences, give information, and/or create an artificial experience. With the case of AR, it is often used to enhance our current experience while providing relevant information.

What are the risks of XR?

As designers, we are responsible for how our designs show up in the world and the ways in which people engage with them. To ensure that we account for the behaviors of the people who will engage with our designs, we must conduct research to gather information about those people.

This information that we use through the iterative design process integrates us into the lives of individuals for whom we design. Features are based on what we know (or hope) that person will do, think, or say given a particular scenario in which they will use a product. This is powerful. We have the ability to use behavioral psychology to help design immersive experiences. For example, we could place ourselves in the shoes of the user when designing a simulation of climbing a large mountain to help cater to their feelings during this type of experience.

Designers are responsible for how their designs show up in the world and how people engage with them. Image credit Adobe.

This amount of influence can also yield a risk of the unknown, like climbing the side of a mountain; there are still some unpredictable real-life factors that can’t be accounted for in the final product. For example, a person could be in a rush to get to their final destination and begin to run while using the Google AR map feature, causing them to bump into another person on the sidewalk because they weren’t paying attention to what was actually in front of them.

The beauty and risks involved with XR technologies exist in the immersion of the experience created for people using the technology. Here are some ways designers can reduce some of these potentially risky scenarios:

Consider context

Consider not just the ideal context but those that are extreme, like testing the usability of the XR technology both within and out of context while still completing the desired task. When a person makes XR technology a part of their day-to-day routine, they are inadvertently saying, “I trust what you tell me.” That level of trust must be held to the highest ethical standard to avoid any misuse of the technology. When designing this type of technology, consider context and factors that may be outside of your control, like how many people will be on the street in a public setting when using services like Google Maps AR.

Attentive handsome ethnic casual adult man in glasses and with backpack holding smartphone while looking around on city crossroad in daylight

Support freedom of choice

It can be exciting to mix a digital experience into our reality for both the people using XR technology and the designers who create the products. Doing so opens up many new ways to communicate information; however, the goal should not be for people to become so immersed that they forget about the real world. Designers shouldn’t want people to become so dependent on what XR technology can do for them that they potentially reduce the quality of their mental and physical health.

Conduct usability tests

With the complexity of XR technologies, it’s important to have users for whom your product was designed test it out. Having this information will help to create a safe and effective product. Without it, we could be harming individuals by not considering their limitations or mental models. Conducting usability tests on XR technologies accounts for any errors that may occur.

Conduct usability tests to create a safe and effective product.
Conduct usability tests to create a safe and effective product. Image credit Campus Technology.

XR and the five senses

One of the unique aspects of XR is that it can engage all five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste.


Sight is probably one of the most common ways XR is made accessible for those who can see. The combination of presenting visually real objects within real environments and computer-generated images within those same environments can easily blur the lines between our traditional digital experience and our natural experiences. Through the use of devices, such as Microsoft Hololens and Google’s Daydream, we are able to explore merged reality with few barriers.


In reality, sound is non-linear. When we’re outside, we hear sounds in 360 degrees of surround. This immersive experience with sound creates a depth in our environment that normal audio files don’t provide. XR can create this same experience. This layer of sound within an environment created by XR technology enhances the experience for a person using this technology.


The smell of a particular scent can trigger a memory that elevates your reality. Though not widely used, XR has made it possible to potentially revisit those memories through smell. The company Feelreal has created a multisensory mask with 225 scents that fits onto existing VR headsets, such as the Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Rift, and Oculus Go.


To come in contact with something is to experience touch. MR technology, which is a mix of digital layers within a real environment that a user can manipulate, encourages the sense of touch. Products like the Haptx Gloves use microfluid technology, tactile feedback, force motion, and motion tracking to help emulate this sense.


Taste is probably one of the most difficult senses to tackle through XR technology because it requires manipulation with our taste buds. A few companies, such as Project Nourished, are developing experimental technology to emulate taste virtually; however, none of their experiments are available for trial.

Creating a new reality

XR technologies are currently infused in our reality. Despite their complexities, they can elevate the way we live and how we retrieve information. Through the iterative design process, we can ensure that XR remains safe and accessible for all to use.

The use of this technology will eventually become mainstream, helping us to accomplish daily and long-term tasks. As designers, we play a significant role in how this new reality and emerging technology will continue to be presented to people; therefore, it’s our responsibility to care.