What Is Extended Reality (XR)?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Discover the origins and applications of extended reality (XR), along with details about who uses it and how you might be able to start a career in XR.

[Featured Image] Two extended reality (XR) developers sit in an office and experiment with a VR headset.

Extended reality is an encompassing term that includes several forms of digital worlds you can experience, namely virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR). Extended reality involves combining the real world with the virtual world in different capacities and supports an entirely digitally immersive experience with VR.

Explore how XR impacts the modern world, examine the different types of XR, and learn about some careers that use this technology.

The origin of XR

You can trace XR technology all the way back to the 1800s when stereoscopes enabled viewers to see images three-dimensionally. However, one of the first examples of XR’s use as a tool was in the 1920s when pilots would train using flight simulators with the help of motion and simulated instrument panels. XR eventually became more affordable; with that, extended reality expanded into different areas such as the gaming world, health care, architecture, and other industries, each finding ways to use XR to improve their products and services.

What is the significance of XR?

XR significantly impacts several industries and business practices, allowing those who use this technology to separate themselves from competitors. It also provides consumers with more engaging experiences and improves employee productivity.

Applications of XR

Extended reality is already changing how several industries and businesses function and their approach to developing products and experiences to offer their customers. Here’s a closer look at the current applications of XR:

  • Manufacturing: XR enables manufacturing companies to collaborate globally through headsets and improves the efficiency of assembly lines.

  • Gaming and entertainment: With XR technology, gamers can enter a different world where it feels like they are actually there. You can also use virtual reality headsets to enjoy a more immersive experience when watching sports events or movies.

  • Education: Immersive experiences help enhance learning by creating a more engaging environment. It even enables you to experience real-world learning opportunities, whether for young learners or training professionals entering the workforce.

  • E-commerce: When shopping online, augmented reality allows you to interact with a product before purchasing it to better understand how it will look or function in real life.

  • Health care: Extended reality allows medical images to transform from two-dimensional to three-dimensional images, giving medical staff more accurate depictions of the areas they are diagnosing. Doctors can also utilize XR for risk-free surgical training.

  • Real estate: In the real estate industry, extended reality makes it easier for prospective buyers to observe a property without having to actually visit it in real life.

VR vs. AR vs. MR

Virtual, augmented, and mixed reality are different types of extended reality. Virtual reality gives users a replication of the real world. It’s where you can enter virtual environments in a completely immersive experience. Augmented reality, meanwhile, blends the real world with the virtual world by overlaying three-dimensional images onto the actual surroundings as seen through your device.

Mixed reality is similar to augmented reality, combining virtual and real-world elements. Rather than overlaying images, it allows the real-world and virtual components to directly interact with one another. For example, in health care, mixed reality helps prepare medical students to perform surgeries by simulating steps on a model.

Pros and cons of using XR

Extended reality has several significant benefits; however, challenges do exist with this technology.

The business advantages of extended reality include simplified collaboration and communication among teams, regardless of location. Other benefits include improved employee training environments and more engaging consumer experiences.

On the downside, extended reality typically means higher up-front costs for businesses looking to implement it for training purposes, in addition to necessary updates to both the hardware and software of your XR products as advancements come along.

XR careers

Within extended reality, you can find careers working on different components of XR. For example, you can focus your career goals on product design, research, or building hardware or software. Here’s a list of several XR job titles you can work toward:

  • Design engineer

  • Software engineer

  • UX researcher

  • VR engineer

  • VR researcher

  • User interface designer

  • Quality assurance specialist

In what ways does the government use XR?

Businesses aren’t the only ones benefiting from extended reality technology, as the government is also changing how it operates with the help of XR. You can find XR at museums and national parks to give visitors a more interactive experience. It also plays a positive role in improving public health and safety efforts. For example, extended reality allows real-time access to previous inspection data to address whether or not improvements occurred from the last inspection.

How to get started in XR

The extended reality industry is rapidly growing, with the 2022 global market sitting at $29.26 billion market size and likely to reach $100.77 billion in 2026 [1]. Considering this growth now is a great time to look into developing relevant skills so that you can capitalize on this trend and become part of a rising industry.

When preparing for a career in XR, it’s helpful to consider whether you want to work on the development or design side of projects. To work in development, you’ll want to prioritize areas such as computer vision and machine learning, while 3D modeling and animation skills play a vital role on the design side.

Other valuable skills for working in extended reality include UX design to build products that meet the end user's needs, machine learning to create more immersive experiences, and computer programming languages such as C#, Java, and Swift. Creative thinking skills will also help you develop appealing graphics.

Learn more with Coursera.

XR blends AR, VR, and MR elements, and it has the potential to impact industries ranging from health care to construction to defense and more. Learn more about extended reality to apply it effectively in your personal or professional life with highly-rated sources like the Extended Reality for Everybody Specialization from the University of Michigan will help you learn how to design and develop XR applications and how to address design problems.

What is the Metaverse? is another option on Coursera that can help you develop relevant skills in extended and virtual reality while exploring the potential impact of the metaverse on professionals.

Article sources

  1. Statista. “Extended reality (XR) market size worldwide from 2021 to 2026, https://www.statista.com/statistics/591181/global-augmented-virtual-reality-market-size/.” Accessed March 14, 2024.

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