Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality have been getting a lot of attention lately. Over the past few years major technology companies such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, HTC, Samsung, Sony and others have invested in VR, AR or both. In 2017 long time hold out Apple finally entered the market with announcements for VR and AR. So what are the differences between VR and AR?
Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality - Definitions
First let’s get the basic textbook, or in this case Wikipedia, definitions out of the way first. According to Wikipedia, “Virtual reality (VR) is a computer technology that uses Virtual reality headsets, sometimes in combination with physical spaces or multi-projected environments, to generate realistic images, sounds and other sensations that simulate a user's physical presence in a virtual or imaginary environment” and “Augmented reality (AR) , is a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data.” So put simply, VR replaces your reality with a new simulated one and AR takes your current reality and adds new elements to it.
VR and AR - Implementation and Uses
Implementation of Virtual Reality is generally done with a Head Mounted Display (HMD) and headphones that gives you a 3D view of a virtual environment with corresponding stereo audio. At the low end is Google Cardboard and other similar HMDs that fall into the class of mobile VR. These devices use a smartphone to display the virtual environment and create the audio. The smartphones gyroscope, accelerometer and magnetic sensors are used to track your heads rotation. This level of tracking is known 3 degrees of freedom (3DOF) as it only tracks your heads pitch, roll and yaw. At the high end are devices like the Oculus Rift and HTC VIVE that use a high end desktop or laptop to power them. The increase of computing power of these devices is used to display more complex virtual environments and show them at faster more realistic frame rates. These systems, using either cameras or laser beacons, are capable of more advanced head tracking, following your heads movement through space in addition to its rotation. This level of tracking is known 6 degrees of freedom (6DOF) as it tracks your heads pitch, roll, yaw and forward/back, up/down, left/right motion.
Implementation of Augmented Reality is done in one of 2 ways. At the low end a smartphone or tablet’s camera is used to capture the view of the world around you and that view is combined with computer generated data or objects and shown on the devices display. Much like Mobile VR the smartphone or tablet’s sensors are used to do rotation tracking providing 3 degrees of freedom. At the high end of AR are devices like Microsoft’s HoloLens and the Meta 2. These devices let you see the actual world around you and optically project or reflect computer generated data or objects into your eyes. These devices also provide 6 degrees of freedom head tracking using sensors and cameras tracking the environment around you.
AR and VR - where does it all lead to?
So now that we have a good idea of the differences between VR and AR what can you do with each technology? Virtual Reality is best at taking you out of where you are now and taking you someplace new, with no real limit on where that might be. Visit real estate properties or potential college campuses without having to travel to them. VR reporting, documentaries and travel can take you to place you may never be able to visit. Healthcare is already using VR for treating Phobias, PTSD, rehabilitation and pain management. With VR you can experience a story, learn a skill, walk the surface of Mars or the bottom on the ocean, or simply relax on a beach by yourself. With social VR you can do many of these things with other people live from around the world. Oh and apparently it’s good for immersive gaming too. ;-)
Augmented reality has its own strengths in what it can do with you in the real world, wherever you happen to be. AR navigation apps with help you find where you parked your car, guide you to your next destination. Sightseeing apps will guide you around historic destinations or help you find that perfect destination you didn’t know you were looking for in a town you have never been to. AR shopping will let you see how that couch is going to look & fit in your living room, or see how new clothes or cosmetics will look on you before you buy. Instructional AR will assist your mechanic repairing your car or help you put together that Ikea furniture. If Pokémon Go is any indication, AR gaming has a bright future.
So who will be the winner of these two new technologies? Well, the thing is the media likes to pick winners and losers in a technology race. VHS vs. Betamax, Blu-ray vs. HDDVD are examples where there were 2 incompatible approaches to the same technology and one won over the other. With Virtual Reality vs. Augmented the differences are there, but one doesn’t just replace the other and the uses are compelling for both approaches. This doesn’t have to be a one or the other choice. VR and AR are two different ends of a spectrum of this new way of spatially/immersively interacting with a computer.
Of course people focused on either VR or AR will know there are on the right side and the other is doomed to fail, that’s just natural. I just don’t see the future playing out like this, I see a future for both approaches with a lot more middle ground. VR devices with pass through cameras for when you want to bring a little bit of the real world into the virtual. AR devices with shutters to block out the real world when you want the advantages of total immersion. The only real winner here is you the consumer. The form factor and price of these devices are only going to come down with the quality and number of useful applications only going up.
The following infographic sums up the difference between AR and VR