Merging the virtual world, created by data and numerical simulations, with the immanent reality of the physical world is a challenge that has interested computer scientists, economists, environmentalists and science fiction writers for decades.

If virtual reality is substantiated by the metaverse, a concept devised by sci-fi author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, augmented reality sees the overflow of the virtual into the physical world, where machines and artificial intelligence support the human in his interaction with external reality, as evidenced by the mainstreaming of Meta and Apple visors.

The new frontier today is Extended Reality (acronym: XR). Not a new technology per se, but a term that encompasses all the virtual elements used for virtual-real interaction. Among the concepts it encompasses are Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Reality (MR), but also the technologies that make these realities possible; for example, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), 5G network, XR viewers, lidar, motion sensors, optical sensors.

And if today's immanent reality is rapidly changing in the face of environmental and economic polycrisis, XR presents itself in the medium to long term as a high-impact solution to accelerate the understanding of planetary anthropogenic transformation and the action of ecological transition for decarbonization and circular economy.

On the one hand, we need to observe nature with the eyes of science - grounded in impressive masses of data and models processed by forms of Artificial Intelligence - in order to understand it and create new econarratives: imagine visors such as Apple Vision Pro or a smartwatch with wireless headphones that read for you the health of a glacier while you look at the view in the Dolomites, that inform you of soil loss during a country walk in Flanders, or of air quality updated in real time while jogging in central London. These new econarratives would fundamentally change our imagery of the world, updating it to the "invisible" reality of environmental and climate science and its world of data and processing. 

On the other hand, XR could accelerate so many industrial processes by constantly going to optimize them following principles of energy waste reduction, circularity efficiency, and decision support. The virtual representation of complex environments enables faster and easier adoption of new practices that, in turn, can lead to greater value creation but, above all, to an increasing reduction in consumption and impacts, especially if corroborated by deep learning systems, retroactive review. And this is exactly what we are about to observe in this article.


The circular economy today affects only 7.2 percent of the entire global economy. In order to accelerate the circular transition process, we need to work on several key pillars to reduce the impacts of the global economy: reducing energy consumption, reducing the use of organic and inorganic virgin materials, efficiency gains in collection, sorting and recycling processes, reuse and remanufacturing, natural remanufacturing, virtualization and dematerialization of economic processes, product life extension, sharing practices and Product-as-a-Service
Each of these areas could benefit substantially from the use of XR technologies, especially in contexts where the technology has a low adoption cost and companies have the internal or external expertise to adopt XR strategies, knowing that today we are in the infancy stage of XR and that by mid-century these technologies could already be the norm in industrial systems and among consumers.



One of the most common uses of XR is for onboarding technicians and professionals of all kinds, employing headsets, Vr glasses or simply tablets and mobile with augmented reality systems (with lidar, bluetooh, etc.). 

From the energy management of buildings to the use of complex machinery, from the efficient driving of vehicles of all kinds to the construction operations of photovoltaic plants, these systems are not only critical to train workers more quickly in various processes but serve as constant feedback on the work environment. In addition to aiding in training by preventing accidents during training-in construction sites or production lines-recurring errors that can lead to waste or inefficiencies in processes can be identified and the impact measured. 
In fact, XR ensures training and continuous review of worker behavior, perhaps anonymously, as well as providing a vital data for digital twin, human resources and sustainability reporting

One example is employee training in the factories of PACCAR, a world leader in the design and manufacture of commercial trucks, which uses Dynamics 365 Guides and HoloLens in onboarding and refresher.

Another area of use for XR is in the construction industry "where building construction can be simulated to adopt construction practices to reduce material waste avoid costly mistakes, reduce construction time, and efficiency in energy consumption," writes Ranjith K. Soman in the book A Circular Built Environment in the Digital Age (Springer, 2024). Not only that: they can be used for routine and extraordinary maintenance processes assisted by qualified experts remotely or with AI support, increasing the life time in buildings.

Finally, they can serve for shared planning processes with clients and citizenship, to foster inclusive processes. Certainly the costs are not reduced, but today with artificial intelligence producing VR environments and integration with increasingly cheap hardware, it makes it possible for SMEs to adopt these kinds of practices as well.

Even in the world of waste, augmented reality can help companies better monitor and manage material and waste flows, providing real-time information on the status of resources. This can optimize collection, recycling and reuse processes, reducing environmental impact.



Regenerative and resilient agriculture requires great observation of the nature and biodiversity surrounding crops and important information to make correct choices, such as soil Ph, atmospheric moisture, presence of pathogens, real-time weather forecast, and status of treatment application. The European Union with the FIT Project wanted to try to employ complex XR technologies to optimize field management for greater sustainability and productivity. 

"FIT is taking the interaction between farmers, their fields and technology to a whole new level," says Pedro Branco, coordinator of the FIT project. 
"By providing smart data through an augmented reality display, we will provide farmers with a more streamlined crop management process that will maximize investments and profits while reducing costs and losses." 

It is thus favored to support the management of complex intercropping systems and the consequent increase in crop diversity in the long run, while also achieving a return of evidence of regeneration impacts. 
In addition, fundamental to the circular bioeconomy, it will also be possible to improve the sorting of waste for use in recovery processes, have a clear quantification of the food product, its quality and the various by-products to train and have preliminary information for the management of these at harvest stage.



According to Emma Elobeid of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, "Various XR-enabled dematerialization methods are being experimented with in the fashion industry to address the industry's significant relationship with waste and pollution. Some retailers, including Gucci, Nike and others, are trying to reduce the high rate of clothing returns by developing applications that allow users to virtually try on items at home."

Using 3D tracking software to scan body shapes and artificial intelligence-based motion predictors to mirror the physical experience, they can dramatically reduce the number of unworn garments sent to landfill or incineration, as well as the energy used in transporting and processing unwanted items. All of this, of course, must be linked to practices that counteract fast fashion. These practices can be extended to furniture, machinery, and components, significantly reducing the shipping or consumption of materials and goods themselves.



In the book What is the Circular Economy I emphasize how life extension of objects is a key component of the circular economy. On the one hand, there are industrial maintenance and repair systems, such as those at Lufthansa Technik, the airline that uses various suites of XR applications for complex maintenance and repair work on its aircraft, even when the aircraft are away from their designated hangars.
On the other hand, thanks in part to the acceleration of ecodesign, repairing items of electronics but not only becomes a possibility to reduce the purchase of new items. 

In the near future in addition to classic repair video tutorials on Youtube (where content for repairing cars, cell phones, clothes, furniture, etc. abounds), companies will be able to offer as part of their "repairing," services for both customers and professional repairers, XR tutorials with their own replacement components, which can help in the process indicate which parts to use, correct mistakes, avoid wasting materials (screws, glues, components), and making the process less frustrating and more efficient. And it is not out of the question that even Lego (which already uses augmented reality) will adopt these procedures for its fun constructions.

An article by Emanuele Bompan