Curious about the difference between augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR)? From Pokemon Go to the Oculus Rift, we break it down for you.
- July 20, 2018 10:56AM EST
- July 20, 2018
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AR and VR Are Not the Same
The terms “virtual reality” and “augmented reality” get thrown around a lot these days, thanks to the resurgence of VR headsets heralded by the Oculus Rift and the use of AR apps and games like Pokemon Go. They sound similar, and as the technologies develop, they bleed over into each other a bit. They’re two very different concepts, though, with characteristics that readily distinguish them from one another.
What Is Virtual Reality?
VR headsets completely take over your vision to give you the impression that you’re somewhere else. The HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift, and other headsets are completely opaque, blocking out your surroundings when you wear them. If you put them on when they’re turned off, you might think you’re blindfolded.
When the headsets turn on, however, the LCD or OLED panels inside are refracted by the lenses to completely fill your field of vision with whatever is being displayed. It can be a game, a 360-degree video, or just the virtual space of the platforms’ interfaces. Visually, you’re taken to wherever the headset wants you to go—the outside world is replaced with a virtual one.
Most tethered VR headsets like the Rift, the Vive, the PlayStation VR, and Windows Mixed Reality headsets use six-degrees-of-freedom (6DOF) motion tracking thanks to external sensors or cameras (for the Rift, Vive, and PS VR) or outward-facing cameras (for WMR). This means the headsets don’t just detect the direction in which you’re facing, but any movement you make in those directions. This, combined with 6DOF motion controllers, lets you move around in a virtual space, with virtual hands. This space is usually limited to a few square meters across, but it’s much more immersive than just standing still and looking in different directions. The drawback is that you need to be careful not to trip over any cable that connect the headset to your computer or game system.
Top-Rated AR and VR Headsets
Microsoft calls its Windows 10 VR headsets “Windows Mixed Reality” headsets. Don’t let the term confuse you. “Mixed reality” in this case is simply virtual reality. They’re VR headsets, with nothing very “mixed” about them, besides the fact that some of the underlying interface technology comes from the Microsoft HoloLens Development Edition.
Mobile-based headsets like the Google Daydream View and standalone VR headsets like the Oculus Go are less powerful than tethered VR headsets because they rely on smartphone-level processing either attached to or built in, rather than a much faster system nearby. They also usually only offer three-degrees-of-freedom (3DOF), which means they only track direction and not positional movement. They usually only have a single 3DOF motion controller remote, or are designed to work with more conventional gamepads. The experiences are similar, but not nearly as immersive.
For both games and apps, virtual reality completely supersedes your surroundings, taking you to other places. Where you are physically doesn’t matter. In games, you might sit in the cockpit of a starfighter. In apps, you might virtually tour distant locations as if you were there. There are tons of possibilities in virtual reality, and they all involve replacing everything around you with something else.
What Is Augmented Reality?
Whereas virtual reality replaces your vision, augmented reality adds to it. AR devices like the Microsoft HoloLens and various enterprise-level “smart glasses” are transparent, letting you see everything in front of you as if you are wearing a weak pair of sunglasses. The technology is designed for completely free movement while projecting images over whatever you look at. The concept extends to smartphones with AR apps and games like Pokemon Go, which use your phone’s camera to track your surroundings and overlay additional information on top of it, on the screen.
AR displays can offer something as simple as a data overlay that shows the time, to something as complicated as holograms floating in the middle of a room. Pokemon Go projects a Pokemon on your screen, on top of whatever the camera is looking at. The HoloLens and other smart glasses like the mysterious Magic Leap One, meanwhile, let you virtually place floating app windows and 3D decorations around you.
This technology has a distinct disadvantage compared with virtual reality: visual immersion. While VR completely covers and replaces your field of vision, AR apps only show up on your smartphone or tablet screen, and even the HoloLens can only project images in a limited area in front of your eyes. It isn’t very immersive when a hologram disappears once it moves out of a rectangle in the middle of your vision, or when you need to stare at a small screen while pretending that the object on that screen is actually in front of you.
Basic AR that overlays simple information over what you’re looking at can function perfectly fine with 3DOF. However, most AR applications require 6DOF in some form, tracking your physical position so the software can maintain consistent positions for the images it projects in 3D space. This is why the HoloLens uses a stereoscopic camera and advanced pattern recognition to determine where it is at all times, and why more advanced, AR-centric smartphones like the iPhone X use multiple rear-facing cameras to track depth.
For apps, augmented reality has nearly limitless possibilities. Phone-based AR software has been recognizing surroundings and providing additional information about what it sees for years now, offering live translation of text or pop-up reviews of restaurants as you look at them. Dedicated AR headsets like the HoloLens can do even more, letting you virtually place different apps as floating windows around you, effectively giving you an instantly modular multi-monitor computing setup.
For games, augmented reality can build experiences using your surroundings. The detective game Fragments scans your room and creates crime scenes based on its layout, placing various set pieces around and producing a slightly different experience with each room. RoboRaid detects where the walls are and projects holograms of robotic arms breaking through them and robots pouring out. Young Conker places obstacles all over your furniture, assembling its levels from your surroundings. In all of these cases, the games change to fit the space.
The Difference Between AR and VR
Virtual reality and augmented reality accomplish two very different things in two very different ways, despite the similar designs of the devices themselves. VR replaces reality, taking you somewhere else. AR adds to reality, projecting information on top of what you’re already seeing. They’re both powerful technologies that have yet to make their mark with consumers, but show a lot of promise. They can completely change how we use computers in the future, but whether one or both will succeed is anyone’s guess right now.