Technology Explained

Augmented vs. Virtual Reality: What’s the Difference?

Skye Hudson 07-07-2016

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 4 Reasons Why You Shouldn't Buy a Smart TV What is a smart TV and should you buy one? Here's a detailed look at the biggest drawbacks of modern smart TVs. Read More , 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 Why An Augmented Reality Future (Google Project Glass) Scares Me [Opinion] At the beginning of April Google unveiled Project Glass, a new effort to bring smartphone functionality to your eyeball(s). And that's not me overstating the case. This is a HUD (Heads-Up Display) offering augmented reality,... Read More  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 Augmented Reality Apps: Useful, Or Just Hype? MakeUseOf Tests In 2011, analysts predicted the rise of Augmented Reality mobile apps. The nascent technology would revolutionize the way we interact with our mobile devices. Flash forward two years and dozens of AR apps populate all... Read More . You can even play AR games Augmented Reality Games: Are They Worth The Money? Wouldn't it be easier to play a first person shooter if you were actually holding the gun? Or are such enhancements largely redundant in an age when mobile gaming can stand on its own. Read More , though none of those have gotten mainstream traction yet, aside from maybe all the hype surrounding Pokemon Go 8 Ways to Celebrate Pokemon's 20th Anniversary This year, on 27th February, Pokémon celebrates its 20th anniversary. Here's how to celebrate in style! Read More .

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 4 Nintendo Products That Were Way Ahead Of Their Time Nintendo has always been an innovative company, but even their lesser-known products were ahead of their time. Read More  — but it’s now finally gaining mainstream attention thanks to big-name VR headsets like the Oculus Rift (our review Oculus Rift Review Virtual Reality is not new, but it's finally affordable and within our grasp. After four year and two development prototypes, the final consumer edition of the Oculus Rift has arrived. Read More ), the HTC Vive (our review HTC Vive Review: Virtual Reality is Finally a Thing The HTC Vive for Steam VR redefines gaming, and more besides. It's the closest thing to a Holodeck I've ever seen. And it's absolutely incredible. Read More ), the Samsung Galaxy Gear VR (our review Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge and Gear VR Review and Giveaway Samsung sells more Android devices than any other manufacturer, and thanks to some aggressive marketing, the Galaxy brand is almost synonymous with Android. Read More ), and the PlayStation VR.

It’s up to you to decide which of these VR headsets is the best Oculus Rift vs. HTC Vive vs. Playstation VR: Which Should You Buy? Virtual reality is right around the corner and there are three systems to choose from. Here's what you need to know to make an informed, smart decision. Read More . If they’re out of your price range though, there are cheaper options like Google Cardboard How to Get Started With Virtual Reality for Under $30 Virtual reality is finally here, but the various devices can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Want to try VR without investing a huge amount into it? Here's how. Read More , 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 How the Oculus Rift Works and Why You Need One Why is there so much excitement over the Oculus Rift? Because it's a technological marvel. Here's how it works and why you're going to love it. Read More , 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 Why Virtual Reality Technology Will Blow Your Mind in 5 Years The future of virtual reality includes head, eye and expression tracking, simulated touch, and much more. These amazing technologies will be available to you in 5 years or less. Read More  or just a fad that will soon die out Virtual Reality Still Has 5 Big Problems to Overcome Despite all of the hype surrounding the recent surge in virtual reality products, there are many challenges that still need to be addressed before VR goes mainstream. Read More . Though it might be productive to look at VR as more than a means for gaming 9 Virtual Reality Games You Absolutely Must Play in 2016 Three VR devices -- and possibly more -- are launcing in 2016. Here are some of the most impressive VR games that you'll be able to play this year! Read More . For instance, it has a lot of possible applications for remote work and for improving the lives of introverts How a Virtual Reality Room Will Make Your Life as an Introvert Better Read More .

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 Five Questions About Microsoft's "Project HoloLens" Microsoft's new Augmented Reality headset is very exciting -- but can they solve the fundamental problems of AR? Read More , but it looks like a cool innovation with tons of real-world applications 8 Real-World Uses for Microsoft HoloLens Microsoft's HoloLens is cool, but what will you actually use it for? We run down the most exciting possibilities. Read More .

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.

Related topics: Augmented Reality, Mixed Reality, Virtual Reality.

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  1. Himol Shah
    November 15, 2016 at 6:40 pm

    "MR is the newest of the three ideas and is used to describe when a virtual environment interacts with a physical environment."
    would it be more appropriate to say: "MR is the newest of the three ideas and is used to describe when a virtual environment interacts with a physical environment, virtually."

    On an other note, Awesome and Very Informative Article

  2. Himol Shah
    November 15, 2016 at 6:36 pm

    "MR is the newest of the three ideas and is used to describe when a virtual environment interacts with a physical environment."
    would it be more appropriate to say: "MR is the newest of the three ideas and is used to describe when a virtual environment interacts with a physical environment, virtually."

    On an other note: Awesome and Very Informative Article.

  3. IRA
    September 3, 2016 at 3:56 pm

    Can you tell about how exactly an augmented reality works? What hardware is used in it and all

  4. Shikhanshu Agarwal
    July 7, 2016 at 7:05 pm

    I did not know about the term Mixed Reality even though I knew about MS HoloLens. Good read and thanks for spreading knowledge!

    • Riley J. Dennis
      July 9, 2016 at 11:27 pm

      thank you! glad you liked it

  5. Neon Ray
    July 7, 2016 at 4:00 pm

    Mixed Reality (MR) holds an astronomical potential.
    MR will benefit all the Industries and make them get closer to consumers / clients.
    Good Article! Thanks.

    • Riley J. Dennis
      July 9, 2016 at 11:27 pm

      absolutelyyy, thank you!