The XR factor: Growth in the post-pandemic world

Audiences are demanding greater experiences than ever before, so what does this mean for the XR market? Reece Webb takes the pulse of the XR world.

The XR market enjoyed a gigantic growth spurt during the Covid-19 pandemic, as live events and physical meet ups suddenly ground to a halt. The choice was simple – adapt or go bust; XR studios offered an opportunity for events to continue in a virtual format, including the Inavation Awards which were held in 2021 from a virtual production studio.

Today, with the pandemic firmly in the rear-view mirror, the world has slowly found itself returning to a familiar routine – live events have returned, throngs of people gather once again in real-world locations for work and pleasure, where experience is the opiate of masses.

So, what does this mean for the XR space? Has the technology found itself rooted firmly in a niche corner of the wider market? Or is there previously untapped potential for those willing to step into this maturing market space?

Andy Hook, technical solutions director, White Light, says: “XR was big before Covid hit. Before the pandemic, we had already delivered several broadcast projects, but it was mainly limited in this vertical, it’s where we pioneered XR and invested all of our energy. We also targeted the education market, as educators were becoming broadcasters, teaching remote students. When the pandemic hit, this was accelerated.

“We’ve seen that the pandemic was an accelerator for people understanding the potential of XR technology, but the technology hadn’t caught up. Before the pandemic, it was still an early-adopter technology, but coming out of the pandemic, the technology has had to catch up quickly which has been a challenge.”

This growth has occurred simultaneously outside of the broadcast market, as extended reality technologies for education and corporate customers have skyrocketed since the pandemic.

John Mould, commercial development manager, ST Engineering Antycip, explains: “We've seen a lot of change in technology since Covid. Previously, we provided VR caves, VR power walls, and immersive room spaces based primarily on projection technologies, and we're now seeing direct view LED technologies that have emerged, offering new alternatives. They have been more widely adopted, and we've seen more people desiring that technology.

“We've seen more people at the high end of the market wanting that, compared to projection technology, that we've been focused on in the past. At Antycip, we've started to install virtual reality caves post-Covid that are made of direct view LED tiles and that's quite a boom for our company because it's quite an expensive, high-end technology but it's showing that clients are willing to dig deep in their pockets to realise the benefits of this technology and realise some really cool facilities.”

Brave new world 

The XR market is enjoying a wave of investment post-Covid, and it’s not just studios that are seeing this investment. “We are starting to see more XR in boardroom spaces”, says Adam Dennis, XR, VP and Smart-Stage senior development manager, White Light, “but they can’t afford the massive broadcast cameras and lenses, they want to use PTZs. The pool of available cameras is so small, that we are starting to see more manufacturers ask us ‘how can we do more XR without losing out to broadcast camera manufacturers?’.

“We’re seeing more broadcasters wanting to use XR, but it’s on a huge scale, it’s not something that people can take into a smaller space. There are key areas that are showing early-doors interest in XR such as higher education institutions that have been doing online teaching. There are the higher-end corporates that want to do something fun and playful, but we are starting to see corporates that have heavy, regular training needs – pharmaceuticals, oil and gas etc. They traditionally fly people in to train, which puts the carbon footprint through the roof. Investing in technology like this allows them to engage in exciting and informative online teaching programs, meaning that they don’t need to bring people into a physical space to train them.”

The key driver to this diversification in verticals is being driven by a greater understanding and technology offering that allows corporate, healthcare, and higher education users to adopt XR technology for new use cases.

Miguel Churruca, marketing and communications director, Brainstorm, says: “A major trend now is the democratisation of LED volume technology, along with the combination of LED and chroma for more flexibility in content creation. Smaller pixel pitches of the LEDs is also becoming a race among manufacturers, sub-millimeter pitches are becoming increasingly common.

“By using techniques like set extension, smaller content creators can take advantage of this technology at a fraction of the cost. Also, more studios are equipped with different LED volumes that allow their clients to use the best setup for their requirements. So, we’ll see how broadcasters use their LED volumes to display not only video and graphics, but also virtual realities based on camera tracking. Other segments, including corporations, education institutions or houses of worship, can benefit from these technologies, as they are become more affordable.

“Brainstorm’s InfinitySet not only works with LED volumes but also with chroma sets, simultaneously if required. Brainstorm products are fully compatible with the latest versions of Unreal Engine and include advanced XR features such as set extension with tone mapping and color correction, Dual GPU compatibility, several XR creation modes, compatibility with Ghostframe and other multiplexing processors.”

Sounds about right

While there is, of course, a natural focus on the visual spectacle of XR, just the visuals alone do not create an immersive experience. White Light’s parent company, d&b, delivered a unique, immersive space at the Science Museum in the UK, dubbed the Immersive Technology Experience Centre (ITEC).

This space is home to a main laboratory, which hosts an XR studio, as well as a testing lab, and visualisation studio. While this space is overflowing with LED technology, it is d&b audiotechnik’s Soundscape immersive audio system that ties the experience together comprehensively.

Hook says: “On the d&b audiotechnik side, we have Soundscape. We need people to come in and listen to it to understand the workflow, and we can do all of that in ITEC. Audio is a really important piece of the jigsaw – It’s always the last piece of the puzzle and it’s the aspect that makes the picture click into place.

“You can build a picture and it’ll look great, but if you don’t put that audio piece in, it isn’t finished. The thing that makes the difference is when the audio backs up what you’re seeing, and you can only do that with spatial audio, when you emulate the acoustics of a space as you would expect to hear them. Audio objects need to be placed exactly where the visual objects are, so they sound like where the picture shows you that they should be. Your brain ‘lines up’, the audio and the visual and it believes it, that’s the real secret to immersion. Immersion is when you believe your surroundings, and you’re transcended to a new experience, it can only happen when it sounds right, looks right, and feels right.

“Doing that in XR is a balance for the remote audience who are watching people presenting in the space. If they don’t believe that space, it just looks and sounds like badly done television.”  

Extended reality technology has also seen expansion into senses beyond sight and sound, taking the experience from extended reality to integrated reality. Mould explains: “I think having humanisation of that experience is also something that's important. We saw a lot of robotic looking avatars during the Covid-19 pandemic and now we are starting to look at tracking the eyes in real time. We're already getting body behaviours and posturing tracking coming through, so if you are accurately tracking the body, then you are bringing more of that human element.

“It’s still a bit of a challenge to process all of that live and make it fluid in VR. When speaking, for example, mouth opening is triggered by an audio cue, which is approximated and not delivered with real-time facial expressions, but we are seeing some interesting developments such as scents in a virtual world. I've been aware of Olfactory simulation technology for a long time, but we had limited customers interested in exploring it. Now, we do have a customer asking us about smelling the virtual world, and we have the hardware to create and deliver those smells. We’re getting the touch, the smell, and also omnidirectional treadmills [to move in XR spaces].”

ST Engineering Anytcip delivered what is claimed to be the first ‘natural’ ‘omnidirectional’ XR treadmill for the University of Liverpool. Dubbed the Infinadeck, this technology aims to enable users to move freely and naturally within expansive virtual spaces without being confined by real-world environments.

The Infinadeck treadmill is compatible with VR headsets, projection domes, and immersive LED displays.

Mould continues: “We're now able to have an omnidirectional treadmill that gives you the ability to traverse through the virtual world. It's your own legs taking you there and you're not having to do unnatural moves that you've had to learn to use this technology.

“We’re able to put a headset on a user, stand them on the platform and walk around a virtual site naturally, exerting energy. For military customers this is a good aspect because that's putting the reality into the energy of the body. If I tell a platoon of soldiers that I want them to do a 10-mile hike with their backpacks and then I want you to fight, they can do that by training them with a system like that because they're actually running or walking that 10-mile distance. In the past they were using game pads and joysticks, which was easy for them, whereas now you're getting them sweating.”

Future thinking

As the XR market matures, end users enhance their education, and price points of technologies such as LED become more accessible, how will the XR market continue to evolve? Churruca believes that democratisation holds the key to technological innovation and content indistinguishable from reality: “Virtual technology is becoming more common as it becomes accessible for content creators of any size. The technology is maturing, and the market is more aware of its benefits and downfalls, which makes it possible to use it creatively, allowing the production of great content that can’t be distinguished from reality.”

Hook adds: “Hardware will be evolution not revolution, but software will change dramatically. The wraparound software services that are required for XR are going to change, from content workflows through to additional uses for XR stages, that’s where we’re putting a lot of focus.”

For Dennis, the democratization of XR technologies means that there is an opportunity opening for integrators and manufacturers that are adaptable enough to exploit new gaps in the market: “I think custom XR deliveries will remain as a very niche environment”, says Dennis, “These projects are always going to be on the cutting edge and pushing the boundaries of what this technology is capable of, and only a select few will need to commit their budget to achieving that. 

 “Smaller LED volumes and different kinds of media servers and cameras mean that this technology will become more accessible to any kind of audience. The way that the market is going in the education and boardroom space, there is a gap left by telepresence, and as those platforms adopt XR as a mechanism within their overall services, it will continue to drive us into a wider market of options.” 

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