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Have you been seeing terms like “augmented reality” or “virtual reality” thrown around in news articles lately? With so many new technologies popping up every day, it can be hard to keep track of them all.
But unlike certain smart devices, these technologies might be in for the long haul, and that means you should probably know what they are. We’ll break it down for you so you can walk away with all you need to know about both AR and VR.
What Is Augmented Reality?
Augmented reality (AR) refers to devices that combine elements of the real world with virtual aspects laid over it. This often manifests itself in using your phone’s camera to display the “real world” with a virtual overlay, though not always.
Take Google Glass for example, which uses a small display on the upper-right corner of a pair of glasses to show virtual elements over top of your real world field-of-view.
When Google announced Glass back in 2012, the world didn’t really know what to make of it. How could something like this possibly improve our lives?
And yes, many people were skeptical of it for other reasons like breach of privacy, but it was one of the earliest mainstream attempts at an augmented reality headset.
Before that, augmented reality was relegated to apps with varying levels of success. You can even play AR games, though none of those have gotten mainstream traction yet, aside from maybe all the hype surrounding Pokemon Go.
If this sounds gimmicky at all, it may very well be — but there are applications for it that could prove to be extremely useful. For instance, Google Translate has a feature that allows you to point your camera at text in one language and it can translate into another language.
That’s already useful on a smartphone, but imagine that in your glasses: you visit a foreign country and your glasses translate all the signs and menus automatically for you.
Basically, AR is just regular reality with a virtual layer over it. Whether that’s particularly useful for you or not is obviously up for debate, and we’ll probably see a lot of headway in this area over the next few years.
What Is Virtual Reality?
Virtual reality (VR) isn’t a new concept — Nintendo made the Virtual Boy way back in 1995 — but it’s now finally gaining mainstream attention thanks to big-name VR headsets like the Oculus Rift (our review), the HTC Vive (our review), the Samsung Galaxy Gear VR (our review), and the PlayStation VR.
It’s up to you to decide which of these VR headsets is the best. If they’re out of your price range though, there are cheaper options like Google Cardboard, which you can get started with for under $30.
But here’s what VR essentially boils down to: creating an entire world within virtual space. Whereas augmented reality relies on input from the “real world”, virtual reality aims to create its own distinct and separate world.
With a VR headset on, your surroundings don’t matter (well, except for the risk of running into tables and such). Your vision is completely immersed in the virtual world, no matter which direction you look in, and with headphones on, your audio is completely in sync with that world too.
This disconnect can actually be a big problem. Just as real walls can exist where virtual walls don’t, you can also reach out for virtual objects only to find that nothing exists in the real world. That tactile feedback is missing, and that can be disappointing.
Companies have been working on ways around this, but their adoption has been limited. Oculus makes the Oculus Touch, for example, but it isn’t very popular yet. It might take some time to create a proper motion-based input that game developers and players are willing to adopt en masse.
So it really is up to debate whether you think VR is going to be the next big thing or just a fad that will soon die out. Though it might be productive to look at VR as more than a means for gaming. For instance, it has a lot of possible applications for remote work and for improving the lives of introverts.
Of course, there is also the possibility of taking VR to the next level by simply building an environment for the user to walk around in. That’s the path The Void took, which was insanely cool, but that’s not exactly an economically-feasible option for bringing VR into people’s homes.
What Is Mixed Reality?
Smack dab in the middle of AR and VR is mixed reality (MR). MR is the newest of the three ideas and is used to describe when a virtual environment interacts with a physical environment.
This is different than AR, which only overlays virtual aspects. In MR, the virtual aspects actually interact with the physical space and physical objects. In a sense, you could argue that MR is a more advanced subset of AR.
The best way to illustrate this is through a mainstream demonstration: Microsoft’s HoloLens. There’s a lot we’re still unsure about with HoloLens, but it looks like a cool innovation with tons of real-world applications.
The difference between this and Google Glass’s display in the upper-right corner of your vision illustrates the main difference between AR and VR: Google’s display doesn’t interact at all with your environment whereas Microsoft’s display allows you to see holograms sitting on your table, floating in front of you, or held against a wall.
MR relies on virtual interfaces blending in seamlessly with your physical surroundings — it’s not just a plain overlay like AR.
What Will the Future Hold?
The words we used to describe things are constantly changing as we invent new things and old things fall out of use. Today, we’re talking about AR, VR, and MR, but tomorrow, there might be something new entirely.
What do you think that will be? Are there any other terms you’d like us to explain? And did this help with your understanding of the different realities? Let us know in the comments if you have any questions, and we will do our best to respond.