The state of extended reality research

Published by the Annenberg School’s Virtual Reality ColLABorative, a new report summarizes augmented, mixed, and virtual reality research in the social sciences.

Despite the ubiquity of virtual technologies in our everyday lives, the impact of virtual reality on society is vastly understudied, says Katerina Girginova, co-director of the Annenberg Virtual Reality ColLABorative (VRCoLAB), a group at the Annenberg School for Communication focused on the critical and creative study of extended reality (XR)—augmented, mixed, and virtual reality—technologies.

The lab launched “Social Grammars of Virtuality,” the first publication dedicated to the review of XR research in the social sciences.

A group of people standing at a table wearing VR headsets.
Image: Courtesy of Annenberg School for Communication

“Only 5% of the research on XR comes from the social sciences,” Girginova says. “The other 95% is dominated by medicine, engineering, and computer science—fields that are not only at the forefront of using XR technologies, but also are actively developing them.”

This is worrying, she says, because social science research is critical in understanding the impact of XR technology on individuals and societies: its ethical implications; its role in our daily lives. By considering the social dimensions of XR, researchers, technologists, and developers will not only be able to create more ethical and effective technology, but also expand the way humans communicate.

Girginova and VRCoLAB co-director Kyle Cassidy, along with a team of scholars, analyzed trends in vocabulary, subjects, locations, and publications—then developed guidance on how to improve and expand this burgeoning field of research.

Their findings show that globally, many more people in 2022 experienced AR technologies (like QR codes or TikTok filters) on a daily basis than VR technologies. Yet, VR research dominates academic literature. In general, XR research in the social sciences significantly lags behind technological developments. Almost half of the papers were backed by some kind of funding, mostly by national-level agencies, and 94% of all social science XR articles were co-authored.

A large percentage of the articles studied were from the field of education, many inspired by challenges educators faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Key terms in XR research—like immersion, presence, and embodiment, all borrowed from cognitive psychology—do not yet have explicit definitions in regards to XR research and are often seen as static concepts, rather than as ideas to critically interrogate. And lastly, There are not yet consistent methods to measure the physical movement often involved in XR media consumption—like walking during a museum tour or jumping during virtual sports training.

This story is by Hailey Reissman. Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.