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With the announcement of Apple Vision Pro and the expansive XR experience at SXSW, excitement around extended reality is greater than ever.

The new Apple Vision Pro headset announced recently is among the biggest in tech news. While Cupertino has been quick to distance this hardware from VR and the metaverse, the power of this announcement has reignited interest in tech-enhanced immersive experiences.

The Apple Vision Pro is Apple’s first augmented reality (AR) headset. It has two 4K micro-OLED displays with a total of 23 million pixels, which is nearly three times as many as a 4K display. It also has a camera and sensor array and dual Apple silicon chips. The Vision Pro turns a physical room into a virtual space by mapping it with its front-facing sensors and cameras. You can use the headset as its own computer to browse the web and move around 4K windows with your hands.

Unfortunately, for most of us, the Vision Pro will be initially priced out of our price range, retailing for a whopping $3,499, which is close to the cost to make it. The three most expensive components are the camera and sensor array, the dual Apple silicon chips, and the twin 4K micro-OLED virtual reality displays.

Apple announced the Vision Pro at its June 5 WWDC keynote, but it won’t be available until next year.

I will admit that XR (extended reality) — which is a blanket term encompassing VR (virtual reality), AR (augmented reality), and MR (mixed reality) — has always been a fascinating topic for me. But that fascination, until recently, was only casual.

I tried some early VR games and basic AR experiences on the phone. And I thought the technology was certainly cool. But it was never anything I became fully immersed in. At the time, it was more like a fun but short-lived gimmick that was enticing for how new and different it was, but it didn’t seem to change the landscape of immersive and interactive media fundamentally.

All that changed when I attended this year’s SXSW XR Showcase, as well as several of the XR-related discussions and events. 

Before I delve further into this topic, let me clarify by defining some of the key terms I’ll be using.

Most of us, especially gamers, are most familiar with VR. Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are both technologies that enhance the real world. AR uses a real-world setting, while VR is completely virtual. AR users can control their presence in the real world, while VR users are controlled by the system. AR is 25% virtual and 75% real, while VR is 75% virtual and 25% real. AR requires higher bandwidth than VR. AR can be accessed with just a smartphone, while VR requires a headset device.

Mixed reality (MR) is a term used to describe the merging of a real-world environment and a computer-generated one.

Physical and virtual objects may co-exist in mixed-reality environments and interact in real-time. It’s a hybrid combination of augmented reality and virtual reality technology. Mixed reality headsets like the Microsoft HoloLens are opening up possibilities in the gaming world for mixed-reality experiences. Mixed reality devices are different from typical VR hardware because they use mounted translucent glasses like the recently discontinued Google Glass that let us stay grounded in the real world.

XR is an abbreviation for Extended Reality. It’s an umbrella term that covers VR, AR, and MR. These technologies merge the physical and digital worlds, and they can enhance or replace our view of the world. XR can do this by overlaying or immersing computer text and graphics into real-world and virtual environments or even a combination of both.

You’ll start to hear this term being used much more frequently as technology advances and the world of potential uses and possibilities for this technology is greatly expanded.

Now, why am I telling you all this?

During SXSW 2023, I was invited to a press preview of the festival’s massive XR Experience. I spent several hours exploring some of the mind-blowing technology (and I could have spent several more), and I could not believe how far XR technology has advanced and how profound the implications of these advancements really are.

Highlights of the XR Experience at SXSW 2023

SXSW is considered one of the biggest festivals and conferences in the world. It takes over the city of Austin each spring.

The SXSW XR Experience is an exhibition at the 2023 SXSW Conference & Festivals that showcased immersive projects by international producers. The exhibition showcased virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality technologies that promise to enhance our ability to perceive and experience the world around us.

Having the chance to experience first-hand some of the cutting-edge technologies and innovative use cases for this technology really opened my eyes to what’s possible. I am a gamer, and I’ve always been fascinated by the application of VR within the world of immersive gaming. Make no mistake, there was a ton of exciting content on display at SXSW that made the gamer in me positively giddy.

The capacity to thrill, terrify, and challenge players is now greater than ever. But what really wowed me was all the applications of this technology beyond just gaming. 

TEMPORAL WORLD

With “Temporal World”, Berlin-based artists Chloé Lee and Lucas Martinic have created a haptic VR experience in which they reflect on the meaning of places with which they have varying degrees of connection — from the personal to the familiar to the foreign. As an Asian-American artist, she explores themes of migration through discovery, documentation, and, eventually, rooting herself in a new place.

We are guided to slow down while exploring Berlin and beyond in our increasingly accelerated time. This VR world emphasizes the ephemerality of memory. Visitors explore and shape the landscape that is as fragmented and fickle as memory itself while wearing a custom haptic jacket that adds sensation to the typical audiovisual VR experience. These new ways of sensing and, in turn, understanding help create a more nuanced understanding of our interactions and, often invisible, dynamics within our environments.

As Lee explains:

“Every day, though we may not see it, our smallest interactions shape and leave a trace on the world around us. This virtual world is not unlike our physical world; with distance and time, we often gain clarity. This project is an embracing of temporality. Although the places, people, and things that hold the essence of meaning are impermanent, the trace left behind can always be reimagined into something new.”

While wearing a custom haptic jacket that sends vibrational feedback through the body, participants enter the Oculus headset to find a single-user virtual world composed of 3D-scanned sights and soundscapes of Berlin and beyond. This jacket is an attempt to recreate a vibrational experience in which the highest frequencies are felt in the neck and shoulders, while the lowest is felt in the fingertips and waist area.

AESPA VR CONCERT AT KWANGYA

I’m a huge K-Pop fan, and I love the girl band aespa from South Korea. Thus, I was especially excited to check out a clip from their upcoming immersive VR concert, and it was, to quote the title of one of their most popular songs, Next Level.

The concert, which made me feel like I was front row for a live performance, was produced by AmazeVR, which brings fans face-to-face with their favorite artists. Using live-action 3D footage combined with beautifully rendered virtual environments, AmazeVR Concerts transport fans and artists alike to fantastical new worlds. AmazeVR recently launched the “Megan Thee Stallion VR Concert” experience and will be launching “AmazeVR Concerts” across multiple VR platforms this summer with multiple artists. I seriously cannot wait until this becomes the norm and would have loved to have had way more than just a few minutes of experiencing this remarkable technology.

SM Entertainment & AmazeVR’s first joint production utilizes new proprietary technology to produce immersive VR Concerts for artists globally at scale. The World Premiere of aespa’s VR Concert at KWANGYA was showcased in Austin, Texas, at the 2023 SXSW XR Experience March 11th – 14th, 2023. This experience will allow aespa fans to engage up close and intimately with both the artists and their stories in a way not possible anywhere else.

Forager: Immersive Multi-Sensory Experience

Perhaps no experience affected me more than this one, which was designed to be educational in nature but also made me feel more at peace and meditative than I’ve ever felt. In this experience, the developers take you through the entire life cycle of mushrooms in VR. Through sight, touch, and smell, you experience the progression from spores, mycelium, and fruiting body to decay.

A mushroom is a door in the floor. Open it and discover nature’s greatest revelation: an endless underground network secretly feeding life to the world above. And yet, we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about mushrooms.

What if we knew more? Enter Forager, a highly immersive experience and first-of-its-kind interactive volumetric time-lapse installation. Participants experience the wonder of the mushroom kingdom through a variety of different perspectives, ultimately fostering a closer connection with the natural world. Forager was created by Winslow Porter and Elie Zananiri, two well-renowned storytellers and technologists who have been breaking boundaries in virtual reality and installation design throughout their practice.

They have been developing Forager over the past two years while working as artists-in-residence at Smallhold, the only organic mushroom farm in New York City. The team’s goal is to use advanced storytelling tools to convey an urgent message: we are deeply connected to our planet in a way that has never been more important to understand than now.

The Forager team developed custom 3D scanning hardware and software to capture mushrooms growing over time and then play them back as hyper-realistic animations. This is the first ever volumetric time-lapse technology used inside of a game engine. This unique pipeline allows Forager to present the natural world as close to reality as possible, with the goal of sharing this connection to nature with all participants of any age, language, and background.

Rockets, by Pillow

And now, I bring you the game that made me immediately want to go out and buy a VR headset.

“Rockets, by Pillow” is a 2023 VR narrative designed for lying down in bed. In the game, you control a rocket named Crimson through puzzles to save the universe from an evil you set free. The game was created by Lucas Rizzotto and Chris Smoak.

You control the experience with just one controller. It’s just challenging enough to keep you engaged without being overly difficult or frustrating. It’s also insanely relaxing and would be the perfect way to unwind at the end of the long day as you get ready for bed. It’s enough to stimulate the brain without being so stimulating as to make it difficult to sleep afterward. The graphics were phenomenal, and it was also very funny.

I honestly am obsessed with this game and wish I could purchase it immediately.

More Phenomenal XR experiences

  • Body of Mine VR: VR experience that, in combination with real interviews of transgender people, lets you experience your own body from a different perspective.
  • Consensus Gentium: Interactive film that explores facial recognition, artificial intelligence, and the effects of uncontrolled surveillance.
  • The District VR: German VR experience that immerses you in a digital t