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Difference between Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality and the Future of Entertainment

Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), and Mixed Reality (MR) may sound the same to many of us. But do you know that each one is different? AR, VR, and MR are different tech concepts with characteristics that differentiate each from one another.

Today’s technology has come a long way from the days of View-Master’s thin cardboard disks containing seven stereoscopic 3D pairs of small color photographs to today’s VR and its close cousin AR. In fact, thanks to heavy investments from giants like Facebook, Google, Samsung, and many others betting on high-value returns, virtual and augmented reality are finding their way into our newsfeeds more and more frequently. To cut a long story short, here’s the difference between virtual, augmented, and mixed reality technologies:

Virtual reality (VR) immerses users in a fully artificial digital environment.
Augmented reality (AR) overlays virtual objects in the real-world environment.
Mixed reality (MR) not just overlays but anchors virtual objects to the real world.

Have a look at this helpful infographic:

Not clear? Let’s go deeper into details.

Augmented Reality (AR)

When you interact with virtual reality, you are completely immersed in a digital environment. In augmented reality, virtual information is overlaid in the real world, so the experience isn’t completely immersive. Digital details such as images, text, and animation augment or enhance the real world the individual is experiencing.

While many people were first exposed to augmented reality during the rampant popularity of the mobile game Pokémon GO or when using philters on Instagram or Snapchat, there are many uses for augmented reality beyond gaming and fun. Industries such as healthcare, aviation, automotive, and more are exploring ways augmented reality can support operations. Retailer IKEA has an augmented reality app that allows shoppers to see what furniture will look like in their homes by placing virtual versions onto their living spaces via the app. AR diagnostic tools are helping medical professionals model diseases in a hospital setting while pilots get flight data projected in their line of sight from their helmets courtesy of augmented reality.

The travel and tourism industry enhances travelers’ experiences with augmented reality technology as well. Augmented reality can give people more information about the buildings, landmarks, and attractions they walk by when taking a tour. With an AR app installed on a device, all tour groups need to do is point their device at the building or attraction to get more information. Curious what a restaurant serves for dinner? An AR app can provide this information to prospective diners when they point their device at the restaurant. AR technology can help businesses in travel and tourism provides a better experience for their guests.

The enhancements of augmented reality are enabled via devices such as heads-up displays, smartphones, tablets, smart lenses, and AR glasses, but smartphones are typically the AR device used by most who have experienced AR thus far. AR apps are created by developers who often use ARKit by Apple and Google’s ARCore.

While augmented reality allows virtual info to be overlaid on a real environment, users can’t interact with it like they would be able to in real life. This capability is reserved for a mixed reality environment.

How Does AR Work?

As of today, AR only requires a Smartphone with a camera and an AR app. Two key elements that make it work are the camera capacity to capture the environment around you as you move and the software that calculates and projects some computer-generated visuals or content.

Some of the interesting real-world examples of AR

  • AR in Gaming
    Games like “Pokemon Go” project a Pokemon on your screen, on top of whatever your mobile camera focuses on. Augmented Reality has beautifully combined the real world with the favorite Pokemon characters.
  • AR in Medical Training
    Augmented Reality is finding its virtue in medical training today. For example, students at the Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University are learning human anatomy using AR headsets or glasses. AR allows them to examine the human body without the need for dissecting cadavers or watching live operations.
  • AR in Retail
    The retail sector also has been taking advantage of AR to help customers have a more enjoyable and interactive shopping experience. For example, Harley Davidson has developed a unique mobile app for its customers that allows them to view a motorcycle in-store using AR and customize it by adding accessories, changing paint jobs, etc.
    IKEA, the leading retail conglomerate, has rolled out AR-powered retail apps that allow customers to “try on” clothing remotely before buying them online.

AR in Manufacturing

Augmented Reality enables the manufacturing industry to gain a competitive edge by helping companies improve quality and productivity. Workers can get assistance from AR gadgets to save time, reduce errors and increase efficiency. Some of the world’s biggest brands like Boeing and General Electric are already using AR in their manufacturing processes.

Using AR glasses allows Boeing’s technicians to easily view the wiring renderings in the aircraft fuselage without external distractions.

Augmented Reality enables GE mechanics to be more productive as the technology offers them step-by-step instructions and visuals directly within their line of sight. They also get alerts in real-time through AR smart glasses so that they can inspect every step before moving on.

Virtual Reality (VR)

Virtual reality means entirely replacing the reality you see around you with computer-generated 3D content. With head-mounted displays for VR, also known as VR headsets, you’re completely immersed in the virtual simulation and cut off from the real world. This allows you to freely customize and create as many different experiences and scenarios as needed and, depending on the device, you can interact with virtual contents and objects using your hands or with your eyes.

VR headsets can be tethered to a PC, enabling more powerful graphics. Alternatively, VR headsets can be untethered, which lowers the visual quality but allows the user to move around freely without wires. The virtual experience that you see can be anything between a photogrammetric capture of the real reality or a computer-generated scene that is 3D modeled and built with a gaming engine.

While VR headsets can provide fairly immersive experiences, they also place limitations on the space where the headset is used as the user’s ability to interact with real-world objects is limited. Collaboration with your (physical) colleagues is also limited as communicating with them and using devices in the same shared space are difficult.

How Does VR work?

Some of you may remember what a thrilling experience it was using Mattel’s View-Master, which was introduced in the 1960s. Today’s VR is the modern version of that stereoscopic sightseeing effect: It requires a set of lenses inside a viewport on a headset and a mounted device where the experience is stored or computed.

From pure observation to complete immersion, the range of VR capabilities varies depending on the device and type of headset used. Using a remote control in sync with the mounted headset allows the user to interact with 3D objects in space, within the experience—either for VR games or virtual interfaces and apps.

Which Companies are Leading the VR Market Today?

Fast forward to 2014 where Google initiated a mass-market DIY headset that uses a Smartphone to drive the VR experience: Google Cardboard. Samsung followed the year after with their Gear VR, and the new race for virtual reality was officially on. Officially acquired in June 2014, Oculus VR joined the Facebook family to accelerate its aim for domination in the high-end spectrum of the virtual reality headset.

Mixed Reality (XR)

Mixed reality (MR/XR) combines the best aspects of both VR and AR. It is all about merging virtual content with the real world in an interactive, immersive way. In Mixed Reality, virtual objects appear as a natural part of the real world, occluding behind real objects. Real objects can also influence the shadows and lights of virtual contents. This natural interaction between real and virtual opens up a whole new realm of solutions that would not be possible with virtual or augmented reality.

Mixed Reality gives the ability to see yourself and interact with your colleagues while (for example) designing a virtual object or environment. For Mixed Reality to be valuable for professionals it has to be convincing – blending real and virtual content to the point that it’s impossible to tell where reality ends and the virtual world begins. Mixed reality is best accomplished with video pass-through technology instead of optical see-through. With video pass-through-based solutions, virtual objects can be black or opaque, and appear as solid as anything in the real world. Colors are perfectly rendered, appear just as they should and you can also add, omit and adjust colors, shadows, and light in the virtual world and the real world.

All of this means that you need fairly powerful computer hardware to run these experiences. However, recent advancements in technology have made it achievable with high-end consumer desktops so any business now has the capacity to adopt mixed reality solutions, and the business impact can be astounding. For example, Kia was able to speed up their design review process by a staggering 99%, going from several days to one hour to complete a review.

When to use Mixed Reality (XR) technology?

Mixed Reality combines the power of AR and VR. It works best in situations where you need to interact with real-world controllers and objects or collaborate with your colleagues while experiencing virtual content, such as designs or simulations. Video pass-through-based Mixed Reality also allows the switch back to “real” reality with a click of a button.

The blurring line between physical and virtual

While Virtual Reality takes you to the virtual world from wherever you are, Augmented Reality adds to the reality by projecting information on top of what you see. Mixed Reality combines both AR and VR. All these technologies, though powerful, are yet to make their mark with consumers. That said, they can completely change the way we use computing devices, gadgets, and technology in the future.

Virtual reality had a head start before augmented and mixed reality hit the market. It still has vast growth opportunities as companies are working on bodysuits, aiming to provide full-body VR experiences.

However, I believe that augmented reality and later mixed reality are going to team up and win the race. AR already offers us great use cases in marketing, education, art, etc. The only true difference between MR and AR is the interface. Today it is a mobile device, tomorrow we’ll have glasses or even more futuristic – smart contact lenses. And as the interface changes, both of these terms will merge together.