As popular as it may be in very specific markets, the concept of Extended Reality (XR) – which encompasses Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR) – is still alien to most consumers. An international race is on to create not only the most immersive experiences possible, but also a new generation of devices that consumers are willing to buy and don’t find too complicated to use. The trouble is Europe is still a long shot from being in the lead. To strengthen the European XR industry, the European Commission has been funding the XR4ALL (eXtended Reality for All) project. The initiative has been lending innovative start-ups a helping hand as well as cementing a strong XR community in an otherwise highly fragmented sector. Oliver Schreer, head of the Immersive Media & Communication Group at the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute (HHI) and coordinator of XR4ALL, discusses how the project helped build a stronger XR community and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.
Your project is called ‘eXtended Reality for All’. Aside from a few niche applications, it seems like industry has yet to find the products that will make XR truly mainstream. What do you think is currently missing to get there?
Oliver Schreer: XR is widely used in Industry 4.0 in sectors such as maintenance, repair, design assembly and quality assurance, as well as in the medical sector where it provides training or for pre-, intra- and post-operative use. However, it is true that the consumer mass market has not matured in the same way. From a technological point of view, tracking and sensing need to be further improved if we are to make AR applications more acceptable and easier to use. Glasses need to be more lightweight and cheaper to reach the mass market. Another major issue is the lack of interoperability for wide-scale technology adoption and for a healthy ecosystem with a diverse range of technology providers.
Why does the United States perform better when it comes to overcoming these barriers?
The United States and also Asian companies are currently leading the hardware sector. This is particularly true for the head-mounted device (HMD) market, with all major devices being manufactured in these regions. However, VARIO in Norway is currently entering the HMD market with promising high-quality devices.
How can a united XR community help Europe catch up?
When we analyse the European XR landscape, we see severe fragmentation of policies and technology development along with a lack of funding. Even though XR technologies are not quite mainstream yet, we’re talking about an industry with hundreds of companies, tens of thousands of employees, and over EUR 4 billion in investments to date. This is a sector set for a bright future as long as it can secure funding, especially for start-ups and early-stage companies. Other European strengths are creativity, skills and cultural diversity. This is why we are convinced that offering a central access point for employment exchange between companies and academia on the one hand and young talents, developers and creatives on the other hand will help to improve job-skills matching.
Can you tell us more about this platform and how it works?
The XR4ALL project is designed to forge a competitive, sustainable XR-tech ecosystem in Europe. We aim to create a pan-European XR-tech community, discover existing EU XR technology, develop a research agenda, award grants to innovative technology projects, and increase investments and tech transfers to help products reach the market.
Where do you stand with the funding of interesting ideas?
We selected 50 projects for XR4ALL. They all went through a first phase with corresponding funding of EUR 10 000 in which the company was asked to validate the technical feasibility of their solution and its business potential. Following this first phase, 25 projects were selected to continue to phase 2 with corresponding funding of EUR 40 000. The projects were organised in three cohorts. The first cohort is completed and eight projects have already brought their solution to market. The second and third cohorts are still running, with an additional 17 projects expected to reach market stage soon.
Overall, what would you say are the project’s most important outcomes so far?
After 2.5 years, XR4ALL has been able to create a unique European brand which brings the major stakeholders in the XR community together. Over 1 000 individual experts have registered as members of the XR4ALL community, while 17 organisations and associations have become associated members. Within the community itself, a set of Ambassadors and Special Interest Groups (SIGs) have been set up around specific themes. More than 50 influential people have been approached and 30 have agreed to become Ambassadors. They now form and lead 14 SIGs joined by XR4ALL members, where they interact and discuss through channels set up for this purpose. We also organised two XR4ALL annual events and two tech venture forums to bring the members of the community together and link start-ups with investors. Finally, the project launched our open call to attract, select and provide financial support to third parties in the development of new XR solutions. These include, for instance: plug-ins for game engines such as Unity; and low-level components based on open APIs, standards and frameworks such as SolAR.
What do you still need to achieve before the end of the project?
One major task is to make all the efforts of XR4ALL sustainable. In a few weeks, we will launch with a number of other founding members a new umbrella organisation called XR4Europe. The consortium will put all its energy and creativity into making this new non-profit organisation a successful continuation of XR4ALL.
XR4ALL, extended reality, XR, community platform, grants, innovative, start-ups