The title of this article uses the term “XR technology,” but, what is “XR”? Is the “X” like a variable that can stand for anything – “V” for “Virtual,” “A” for “Augmented,” “M” for “Mixed,” etc.? Or, is the “X” short for “eXtended”?
The difference may seem small, but “eXtended” has much larger connotations when read in view of spatial computing or distributed computing as we’re increasingly seeing in edge applications.
What about “Social XR”? Is that an XR experience that you can share on social media, like Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook? Or is it an XR experience that you can experience with others in real-time, like Pokemon Go?
XR technology is exceedingly complicated. And, it’s even harder to talk about when we don’t all use the same terms in the same ways. This may have been a passive annoyance to you, but some communicators in the space see themselves as fighting a War of Words.
XR’s War of Words
The first time that I heard about XR’s War of Words was chatting with Alina Kadlubsky. In turn, Kadlubsky told me that she first heard the term was from XR Safety Initiative (XRSI) founder Kavya Pearlman. The two worked together with other contributors on what is likely the most complete XR technology taxonomy on the web.
Among other roles and titles, Kadlubsky is the Director of Communications for Open AR Cloud – an organization dedicated to “the development of open and interoperable spatial computing technology, data, and standards.”
The organization premiered at AWE last year during a panel including some barbed skepticism from Matt Miesnieks, then of 6D.ai before they were purchased by Niantic.
If you’ll forgive a long quote, Miesnieks summed it up thusly:
“If the mirror world gets built and the mirror world is that platform for all of these types of applications, the companies that won and lost in the mobile ecosystems and learned the value of having an app store and their own hardware and what that means, they see that the same stakes are at play for how the mirror world is going to shake out. So I don’t expect a bunch of plucky amateurs to luckily come together and build something that’s better than what these big investments are going to be driven by.”
To be clear, he wasn’t talking specifically about lexicography, he was talking about XR technology and software. However, siloed development is siloed development. And, when Niantic purchased 6D.ai, it seemed that he was right: competition rather than cooperation would win out in XR.
The same thing started to play out on the XR technology terminology landscape. Different taxonomies arise and they aren’t always interoperable.
“Something So New, It Created a Category Unto Itself.”
The War of Words isn’t like an actual conflict in that not everyone is fighting each other. Some people are fighting for the rest of us.
XR technology evangelist Stephen Black is the author of Bubiko Foodtour’s Unusual Guide to Augmented Reality. The ebook is a compilation of definitions and lessons learned first-hand and illustrated through the creation of the titular Bubiko.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a number of seminars, and of course I go in there with a notebook. I’m writing everything down, sitting in the audience and networking with people,” Black told ARPost in an October 2019 interview. “In the course of that, I thought the best way to use it would be to alphabetize it and that’s how the book started.”
Black’s book is at once approachable and educational to the layman and includes suggested terminology for more advanced and less-discussed XR technology concepts and terms. It was also written before two other major compendiums of XR technology terminology came about. I reached out to Black again on the current state of XR lexicography.
“The explosive amount of creativity in spatial computing has, obviously, resulted in many new ideas, and human/tech interactive possibilities. The priority of those creators was, simply, just to get things to work,” Black said in a more recent statement, presenting a sentiment eerily similar to that of Miesnieks.
But, the connection didn’t end there.
“Pokemon Go, for example, was about the possibilities of combining mobile phones, social media, geopositioning, augmented reality, and the Pokemon brand. The result was something so new it created a category unto itself. This sort of hybridization, combined with faster chips and all kinds of new apps gave us acronyms like AR, MR, XR; as well as phrases like social AR,” said Black.
Filters, Lenses, and User Engagement in XR Technology
Social AR is one of the recurring issues talking about XR technology. Its meaning usually depends on the context.
However, it is a discussion that doesn’t usually take place on the user level but on the discourse and metadiscourse levels. While social media is how most people interact with XR technology most frequently, social media platforms don’t usually use the term “social AR.” Instead, they make up their own terms.
“One issue is that the platforms that use augmented reality don’t call it that: ‘filters,’ ‘lenses,’ ‘visual search’ – everything but ‘augmented reality’,” ARzilla CEO and co-founder Elay Romanov wrote in a recent ARPost guest article. “However, users should be educated to call this technology by its proper name so that they can begin to recognize it when they see it.”
In some ways, different levels of audience are the reason that so many different guides to XR technology and terminology exist in the first place.
Black’s guide is for people just getting into the medium. Guides like that produced by the Open AR Cloud and XRSI, are for people already producing in XR.
A guide produced by a looser organization in response to increased interest in XR collaboration during the coronavirus is intended for industry experts – just not experts in XR. That guide was not a dedicated taxonomy but did include a Glossary of XR terms.
“The Glossary was one where we looked at the industry explanations to compile in a synchronous statement about each technology,” guide contributor Julie Smithson of MetaVRse said in an email. “We had several definitions of the glossary but it was about finding the right jargon that could be understood by anybody. We did consult other sources for the glossary but needed to curate our own to ensure we all agree on the definitions.”
Can Different People Use Different Words?
Being meant for different audiences means that these guides and taxonomies are not necessarily in direct competition. Further, the XR Collaboration resource guide and the taxonomy by XRSI et al. are both free. So, why might having multiple guides pose a problem at all?
It gets back to the sentiment expressed by Romanov. Journalist and XRSI’s Director of Communications Marco Magnano recently expressed similar views in a recent article. As an XRSI board member, Magnano was a contributor to the XRSI taxonomy.
Like Smithson, Magnano points out that interaction with the XR technology space by the general public has exploded as a result of transportation and collaboration issues brought on by COVID-19.
“Giving the right name to things is the first step to understanding them. This is especially true when you enter a new world, a mirror world reserved for a few people before these days,” wrote Magnano. “Well, today this is no longer an exercise for specialists.”
To Magnano and others particularly within OARC and XRSI, this influx of new people to the XR technology conversations means a greater need and a greater opportunity to introduce a universal taxonomy.
“The industry needs a collaborative approach and not a competitive one to solve this issue and subsequently bridge the gap of standards in XR,” Kadlubsky said in an email.
XRSI is listed with the American National Standards Institute, potentially giving them and their taxonomy more clout than other publications by less formal organizations. However, the internet might be more likely to side with search engine results and social media interaction than it is to side with organizational self-monitoring and cooperation.
“It is now up to lexicographers, journalists, marketing people, and the next generation of educators to define category names and genres in spatial computing,” said Black.
Can the War Be Won?
Public opinion and corporate competition can have more sway than organizational standards in emerging technologies. However, while this article was being put together, social media giant and Oculus owner, Facebook, published a whitepaper titled “Communicating about Privacy: Towards People-Centered and Accountable Design.”
The whitepaper includes language and citations from the taxonomy published by XRSI.
Maybe, coming up with a universal language for XR technology won’t be companies versus self-regulatory organizations. Instead, it will be self-regulatory organizations guiding companies – which is really the goal of groups like OARC and XRSI in the first place.