Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are sometimes used interchangeably — although there are key distinctions between the two.
While the most popular use case for both is video games, there are a wide array of industries and products that utilize AR and VR. Read on to discover what separates the two, how they are increasingly integrated into our work and social lives, and both the pros and cons of these burgeoning technologies.
What is Augmented Reality?
A clue to understanding AR can be found right in the term; augmented is defined by Merriam Webster as “made greater, larger, or more complete.” When combined with “reality,” this typically means it is made greater (or better) and supplements the reality you are currently experiencing with overlaid visuals or other data. Continually being integrated into both our social and work lives through our digital devices, you likely already use AR technology on a regular basis.
If you’ve ever used a social media filter to add cat ears, a clown nose, or a long gray beard to your face, you’ve experienced AR. If you’ve ever changed your home office background during a virtual work meeting to a Manhattan high-rise office backdrop, you’ve taken advantage of AR. Another example is Pokémon Go, the popular game that took the world by storm by combining real-world exploring, GPS, and the entertainment of a video game.
Put simply, augmented reality adds elements to your reality — it doesn’t replace it. When you have a face filter on or change your background, your friends/coworkers can still see you. When you capture that rare Pokémon in the park, you can still see the grass, trees, and the people around you.
As a technology, augmented reality (AR) can enhance or change a user’s perceptions by adding digital information in the form of images, video, sound, and other data. Most people experience AR through the use of an everyday device such as a smartphone; no special equipment is required. However, there are AR-enabled devices and products that are becoming increasingly popular.
Previously found in the aerospace industry, many vehicle manufacturers are now implementing AR head-up displays (HUDs) in their vehicles. These AR HUDs project information onto the windshield such as speed, traffic conditions, and driving directions — allowing access to this data without having to glance away from the road. Smart helmets provide these same benefits for motorcycle riders by beaming this data onto their face shields.
Predicted in SciFi and no longer fictitious, smart glasses are another example. They can project helpful visuals on your glasses while still allowing you to see your surroundings. Imagine looking at a street full of storefronts and seeing menus, clothing prices, and the stores’ hours of operation without moving a finger. While AR aims to enhance or enrich reality, VR aims to go a step further — and escape it.
How Is Virtual Reality Different From Augmented Reality?
While AR supplements your senses and lets you keep at least one foot firmly grounded in reality, with VR it is possible to completely ensconce your visual, auditory, and even physical senses in a completely novel and virtual world. Like AR, video games have been a popular proving ground. VR technology has been researched, developed in that context, and it continues to be enhanced there. Before we jump into the cutting edge VR headsets, let’s take a step back and look at the three main levels of VR and how it has developed.
The first level is non-immersive VR. It allows you to view, navigate, and sometimes interact with a virtual environment. Examples could include playing certain video games or taking a virtual house tour. At this level, you are typically just engaging via a standard device such as a smartphone, laptop, or video game console. Though no longer commonly thought of as VR, playing first-person video games (such as Halo, Call of Duty, Forza Motorsport) could be considered non-immersive VR experiences.
The second level is semi-immersive VR. A middle-ground VR experience that may use software, hardware, and physical feedback, it gives you more of a sensation that a virtual space is around you and you are interacting with it. Flight simulators and VR 3D rides at amusement parks would typically fall into this category.
That last level is immersive VR and can give you a completely out-of-this-world experience that can give you the sensation of flying a spaceship — or fighting zombies. Immersive VR typically starts with a headset and can also feature hand controls, motion detection, and other wearable devices. Originally developed in academia and then found in entertainment complexes, these VR headsets are now available to everyday consumers. Examples include the Meta Quest Pro, HTC Vive Pro 2, and the HP Reverb G2.
VR Uses Beyond Video Games
While AR/VR are commonly used in video games, including blockchain-based ones, there are other uses outside the entertainment category. Educational and career-related VR training enables pilots, soldiers, surgeons, and students to practice and simulate scenarios from complicated surgeries to airplane landings. VR can also be used to enhance virtual work meetings, enable a VR office visit, virtually try on clothes, or immersively hang out with friends (think talking or playing a game).
Cons of AR/VR Usage
While the aforementioned uses of AR/VR are expanding what is possible and largely making the world better in the eyes of many, some draw attention to the potential drawbacks to AR/VR usage. Particularly when used for longer periods of time, the use of AR/VR can lead to eye problems, social disengagement with the “real world,” and other mental and physical problems.
AR, VR, MR, and the Future
As these technologies and devices develop, the line is being blurred between AR and VR (hence the term “AR/VR”). While headsets are more “VR” and smart glasses are more “AR,” even this distinction is fading away as smart glasses facilitate VR and headsets offer AR options and are now commonly called “AR/VR goggles.” Mixed reality (MR) refers to an experience that combines elements of both AR and VR in a way that muddles the boundary between the two worlds. This is particularly true when it comes to how these technologies are integrating with the metaverse (a virtual world or universe). As AR/VR develops, experts predict that these technologies will increasingly become part of both our off-screen and on-screen lives — if there even is a distinction between the two in the future.
- AR can be accessed on everyday devices. VR experiences typically require the purchase of specialized equipment like a headset.
- AR aims to “enhance” reality while VR aims to replace it with a virtual alternative.
- VR has three main levels: non-immersive, semi-immersive, and immersive.
- MR combines the fields of AR and VR.
- While most popular for video games and other forms of entertainment, VR is also used for workplace training, educational curriculum, socializing, and a variety of other uses.