Virtual reality (VR) began its climb back into the social consciousness in 2013 with the launch of the well-documented Kickstarter campaign for the Oculus Rift. In the four years that have passed since, things have become more complicated. Augmented reality (AR) has finally begun its ascent and Microsoft has muddied the waters with the HoloLens purporting to deliver ‘mixed reality’ (MR). Each of these terms currently refers to a unique experience defined by its hardware, but new platforms are already beginning to emerge capable of combining more than one immersive reality technology.
At Google’s recent I/O conference, Mountain View, head of AR and VR for Google, Clay Bavor, raised an interesting point in a tweet: “VR / MR / AR / RR are not separate and distinct things. They’re convenient labels for different points on a spectrum.”
Bavor reinforced this in a blog post on Medium, in which he stated: “If VR and AR are two points on a spectrum, what should we call the spectrum? Here are a few ideas – immersive computing, computing with presence, physical computing, perceptual computing, mixed reality or immersive reality. This technology is nascent, and there’s a long way to go on our definitions, but for now, let’s call this immersive computing.”
That spectrum, captured in the image above by CNET, illustrates Bavor’s key point. One might argue that defining each of the technologies that appear on this spectrum (which does currently dive deeper than simply AR, VR and real reality (RR)) is a case of semantics, but it’s still worthwhile taking time to step back and recognise the common vernacular each term now represents.
Augmented reality (AR):
Technology which supplements real reality (RR) with computer generated imagery of any kind should be defined as augmented reality (AR). At present, this would include devices such as Google Glass, smartphones (through various applications), Nokia’s City Lens, and even Pokemon Go or Snapchat.
Mixed reality (MR):
Mixed reality (MR) is similar in definition to AR, however opposed to simply placing images and text over the top of RR this technology aims to create an environment in which the user will treat the objects as if they are really there. This can be seen with applications such as Skype and video viewing on Microsoft’s HoloLens, but also extends to 2D video wherein an observer is able to view a user of virtual reality (VR) within the environment that their head-mounted display (HMD) is showing to them. A user in a virtual space which entirely encompasses their vision viewed from the outside can still be defined as MR.
Virtual reality (VR):
Virtual reality (VR) is technology that shuts the user away from RR, instead replacing every aspect of their reality artificially. A vast range of HMDs exist for this, though the current leaders in the field remain the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStation VR, Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream. All of these HMDs completely fill the user’s field of view and replace RR audio.
A new emerging trend is to define any content using these emerging technologies as ‘XR’. However, XR is also used to define ‘cross reality’, which is any hardware that combines aspects of AR, MR and VR; such as Google Tango.
In time, it’s likely at any AR, MR or VR will become defined as ‘XR’ as the hardware matures to incorporate more than one immersive reality technology, or ‘immersive computing’ as Bavor wishes to define it. However, for now it’s important that the industry recognises the differences between each acronym to avoid confusion amongst the consumer audiences that will define the success of each, or all, of these technologies and their applications.