While the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive haven’t quite been flying off the shelves yet, virtual reality is still big news and most analysts think that it is about to take off in a big way. And even if it remains solely the pastime of enthusiasts, it’s still undeniably the case that VR is officially here – and that is incredibly exciting.
But it’s not only VR that has arrived. Equally exciting, and perhaps even more so, is the arrival of comparable technologies such as AR and MR. AR is ‘augmented reality’, while MR is ‘mixed reality’. Both these options bring something similar, though slightly different, to the table and are equally significant in their own ways. Juggling all these concepts can get a little confusing for the uninitiated though, so let’s take a look at precisely how each of these technologies works and how they are different. It’s AR vs VR, a showdown that will define our future!
AR vs VR: Augmented or Virtual?
Augmented and virtual reality are the two technologies that are most widely used right now, so let’s start with those. The easiest distinction to make between augmented reality and virtual reality is that virtual reality immerses you entirely into a virtual world, whereas augmented reality simply overlays virtual elements onto the real world. You know, real reality.
A virtual reality headset will typically use one or two screens that are held close to your face and viewed through lenses. It then uses various sensors in order to track the user’s head and potentially their body as they move through space. Using this information, it renders the appropriate images to create the illusion that the user is navigating a completely foreign environment.
In the case of a device such as the HTC Vive or the upcoming standalone VR headsets with ‘worldsense’, users are free to not only look around but also walk around – interestingly, the latter example uses computer vision technology similar to AR/MR (more on this in a moment). The Oculus Rift now supports positional tracking to a lesser degree as well. Other examples of ‘traditional’ VR include the Gear VR, theDaydream View and even Google Cardboard.
Augmented reality on the other hand will usually use either glasses or a pass-through camera so that the user can see the real world around them in real time. Digital elements will then either be projected onto the glass, or will be shown on the screen on top of the camera feed. There are big similarities here between AR and VR – both are likely to use some kind of headset for instance and both will typically use head tracking to follow the user’s movements. However, AR will typically require slightly less processing power compared with VR as it doesn’t need to render a complete scene.
What it does require though is some degree of ‘computer vision’ – a field of computer science that allows a device to understand the world around it, so that the digital elements can be placed correctly. As mentioned, it is this technology that will soon allow for ‘inside out’ positional tracking with no need for beacons to detect the position of the user. In other words, AR might not need to show the user the environment, but it can still use information about the individual’s surroundings. Google Glass is an example of an AR focused device, which actually just received its first update in three years!
AR and VR are not really competing technologies, but rather complimentary technologies
This is the most common form of augmented reality at least; actually, augmented reality needn’t use a headset at all and can actually work just fine through your phone using a variety of apps available right now. Pokémon Go for example is an example of AR being used in a very mainstream way, as are the filters in Snapchat. Lesser known is something like Wikitude, which is an ‘augmented reality SDK’ for overlaying ‘location based’ information in apps.
Pokémon Go demonstrates the mainstream appeal of augmented reality
What’s more, AR needn’t even include a visual element at all in some cases, as we will see in a moment. For the most part though, AR refers to digital information shown on top of a live feed of the real world. AR and VR are not really competing technologies at all, but rather complimentary technologies. They both serve slightly different functions and in all likelihood, both will have a big role in our future.
So where does mixed reality come in?
So that’s augmented reality vs virtual reality… but what about mixed reality?
Mixed reality is very similar to augmented reality in that it is a combination of a live feed of the world around you with digital information or CG graphics on top. Unfortunately though, the difference isn’t all that clearly defined. Generally, the term mixed reality is more commonly used to describe scenarios in which the computer generated elements more closely interact with the real-world elements. Perhaps this might mean that a wall in your house becomes a computer screen showing a Skype conversation, for instance, or perhaps you’re driving a virtual remote controlled car around your living room floor. Examples of MR-centric hardware include the Microsoft HoloLens or the mysterious Magic Leap headset.
The Microsoft Hololens has a somewhat limited field of view but according to reports, it otherwise delivers on the promise shown in images like this
Mixed reality also tends to be more immersive than augmented reality and require a little more processing power. This might mean that a third of what you can see is computer generated, as opposed to just seeing a piece of text or a single object on top of the real world.
We wouldn’t describe an app that told you the relationship status of a person when you pointed your phone at them as mixed reality, for example. This is augmented reality because it only affects a very small aspect of your view. But the distinction gets blurry here and it’s at this point that the differentiation is hard to define. At a certain point, the terms augmented and mixed reality become interchangeable, so the decision between them comes down to the marketing team deciding which sounds most impressive for their new gadget.
At a certain point, the terms augmented and mixed reality become interchangeable.
It is perhaps best to think of this as a spectrum. On that spectrum, you have vanilla reality at one end and VR at the other. AR is closer to the vanilla end, while mixed reality is a little further along. There’s actually a term that you can use to describe the entire spectrum of experiences which is ‘extended reality’ or ‘XR’. Most people won’t know what you’re talking about when you say that though…
Muddying the waters still
So, it gets a little complicated and arbitrary, but even once you’ve gotten your head around all the AR vs VR vs MR stuff, there are still some areas of confusion.
For example, how would you define 360-degree video? Some people would say that this is an example of virtual reality, while others argue that it is not ‘true’ VR – it is, after all, just the real world in 360. This creates a whole new distinction between CG virtual reality and 360 video. But what about 360 degree video with CG elements?
Then there is the fact that AR can affect senses other than your vision and therefore need not involve a screen at all. There’s a great app available on iOS (not Android, frustratingly) that has actually been offering a unique form of augmented reality for nearly ten years!
It was once called RjDj but is now called ‘The App Formerly Known as H _ _ r’. Which is strange. But this app is an example of what you might call augmented audio reality; it takes sounds from your real world using your phone’s microphone and then changes them before playing them back in a warped fashion. You can apply different soundscapes to make your world more calming, more musical or just louder. And wait, does that then mean that a hearing aid is a form of AR too? According to Pharrel Williams, H _ _ r is ‘like legal drugs with no side effects’. So, there you go. Find out more here or try the similar ‘Scene Player’ for Android.
As you can see then, a whole range of different experiences are now possible, many of which defy categorization. Partly this is a sign of just how new and exciting this technology really is: it’s all coming so thick and fast that our vocabulary hasn’t quite had a chance to catch up. But whatever you call it: AR or VR, MR or XR… it’s all incredibly awesome.