Refocus The Terms of
Digital Reality

Anatomy of Experience
Howard Rose

As a VR designer/developer I put a lot of thought and effort into delivering the best experience that ultimately leaves my user smarter, healthier, happier after they take the headset off. So it can honestly be frustrating when people – from lack of knowledge or experience – lump all things that look kind of like VR into the same big basket. Helping people grasp the nuances of XR will lead to better uses of the tech, plus go a long way to spreading general tech literacy.

The hype and excitement around the tech can easily lead our focus to the details of a specific technology based on some small set of factors like field of view or delivery device. The simplistic labels of VR/AR/MR are convenient as a shorthand, but even in terms of just the tech they fail to capture so many edge cases that fall in between. Simple example, if I stick a camera on a VR headset that the user can turn on or off do I call that VR/AR/MR? What really matters though is not how many angels are waltzing on that pin.

What matters is the value we deliver to our people. VR/AR/MR are techno-centric ways of thinking that fail to explain much about quality of experience people can expect from them.  As an alternative I offer a different take on how to frame and talk about immersive digital tech in human terms.

Immersive Digital Reality Matrix

Immersive Digital Reality Matrix

The vertical axis is technology, the horizontal axis is the human. I define the range of immersive tech from Synthetic to Augmented.

Examples of totally Synthetic experiences would be a 360° immersive virtual world or a robot. The common thread is that everything in the experience is digital and can be fully manipulated by the creator.

The Augmented pole is an overlay of digital on the real world. Examples are phone apps that overlay images or information, like Pokemon Go, or quantified self sensors that overlay information on what’s going on inside us.

Add the Human Element

The Internal/External axis exposes the human dimensions of each quadrant.

Paro therapeutic companion robot seal

Paro therapeutic companion robot seal

Synthetic/External (top right) experiences with robots or other digital entities. A great example is Paro, the fuzzy robot seal companion to comfort seniors. Paro delivers Narrative Immersion through lifelike-enough (thankfully not a real, smelly seal) qualities that create emotional connection.
Augmented/External (lower right) experiences overlay something meaningful on an external context. The choice and control of the context anchors the overlaid message and imbues it with greater meaning. Chasing Pikachu in Pokemon Go is a classic external hook to build motivation. Let’s all take note of the ethical issues about who gets to control the messages that are going to overlay the spaces and events of our lives. #BLM.
Augmented/Internal (lower left) experiences like fitness bands and smart watches make our unseen inner world visible. The way we understand and use the insight is also very personal, and we may or may not want to share.
Synthetic/Internal (top left) experiences like interactive 360° VR take over the entire visual field and enable complex interactions with a world of virtual objects. Every aspect of the virtual environment can be controlled (theoretically). Enter The Metaverse.

This matrix describes a continuum on both axis: our devices are good and getting better at bridging the gaps between the poles. We can now mix modalities and approaches on a single platform or bridge experience across platforms. No need to chose just one way of doing things.

The models and words we use have power. Refocusing the words and models from tech to people will give us better digital experiences  that make us all smarter, healthier, and happier.

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