Reality Check: VR vs. AR vs. MR

By Andreas Rivera
Business.com / Technology / Last Modified: October 9, 2017
Photo credit: Microsoft

Virtual reality is different from augmented reality, and mixed reality is a bit of both.

Virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) are emerging technologies that are changing entertainment, education, industry, communication and countless other applications. The definitions for these individual fields are sometimes confused and muddled. There is some crossover in certain qualities. This guide will cover the difference between each field and the latest advancements that set them apart.

Virtual reality

The first digital, virtual reality headset, which was unveiled in 1968, was mounted to the ceiling because it was so heavy, and it displayed wireframe rooms and objects, according to Virtual Reality Society. It was primitive but the first step in transporting users to a new world.

The key elements of VR are a virtual world, immersion, sensory feedback and interactivity, according to Reality Technologies. VR creates the perception of being in a different place, real or imaginary. Sensory feedback, primarily visual, lends to a sense of immersion, with the goal of reducing the user's suspension of disbelief. The other key is interactivity, allowing users to naturally interact with this world.

The most common form of virtual reality is a headset and some type of input device, connected to a computer that generates the virtual world. In the case of mobile VR, the headset and computer are one in the same. This is the base set for typical virtual reality setups, but more input devices can add to the immersion. Things like motion trackers, treadmills and haptic feedback devices can further immerse the user.

For consumers, VR is primarily sold for entertainment purposes. It is typically associated with video games, with most advances in the technology done in the name of a better arcade and home console experience. VR can enhance the movie-watching experience by transporting you to the movie theater or even take you to live events like concerts with the help of 360 cameras. The most popular devices for these applications include the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

VR has already been used in several other fields, including healthcare, military and commercial applications that require intensive training. VR offers countless opportunities for hands-on training and education when such training is expensive, impractical or dangerous. The military frequently experiments with VR combat training for infantry, pilots and other operations. NASA is known for using VR to train astronauts.

Hospitals and surgeons have experimented with using VR for performing remote surgeries, with a doctor using a VR interface to control a robotic surgeon to operate on the patient. For applications like these that require precision, one-to-one input and output, the technology has more growing to do to become practical and affordable.

Augmented reality

AR has gained more attention within the past few years. The mobile phone game Pokemon Go has become the go-to example of augmented reality, an application that uses the real world and overlays it with data and images for the purposes of entertainment. While this application is a game, AR has the greatest potential for practical uses for both consumers and businesses.  

Augmented reality doesn't transport you to another world like VR, but rather alters your current surroundings with useful data. It doesn't necessarily need a headset to overlay this data for you, but it can be achieved with your phone. Another popular example of AR on your smartphone is Yelp's Monocle, which allows you to find restaurants through your phone's camera and see their average ratings.

Examples of wearable tech include Google Glass, which puts the digital overlay right in front of you, hands free. Uses for wearable AR tech include displaying patient information for doctors, schematics for engineers or inventory management for manufacturers. AR makes information immediately accessible.

Much like VR connecting a surgeon and patient remotely, AR can connect surgeons to other surgeons who are performing the operation, relaying data, instructions and images to their displays.

Another type of augmented reality, according to Reality Technologies, creates input options for you to interact with, including projectors that overlay keyboards on desks or even your forearm.

Mixed reality

This emerging field is often confused with augmented reality, as they have the most crossover between technology and applications. According to Reality Technologies, MR takes the best qualities of AR and VR to create an immersive interface that overlays upon your own reality. Rather than displaying data and simple images like AR, MR strives to put fully digital objects that are trackable and intractable in your environment.

Microsoft's HoloLens is currently the flagship device for MR. Demonstrations show the HoloLens scanning the user's environment and placing 3D objects in the room that they can walk around and view from different angles. Users can view and manipulate things like the game Minecraft or something as complex as an anatomy model. This type of rendering requires much more processing power than AR, which is why most MR devices and applications are still in the proof-of-concept phase and far off from widespread consumer availability.

Many developers see MR as the next iteration of AR, as it's able to display more information and visuals to the user. Adding a sense of immersion to the ideas and goals of AR has applications for designers, who can easily manipulate products or scaled-down versions of the buildings they're working on. Education can be enhanced with MR-enabled classrooms, where subjects such as science, art and history can come to life. Real frogs will be relieved once digital frogs are introduced to biology classes.

Where is it all leading?

Microsoft recently announced its Windows Mixed Reality interface with a goal to bring together several compatible VR, AR and MR devices in one place. As the company's HoloLens continues development, users can experience the interface with different VR headsets for a wide variety of applications.

Ideally, the technology will culminate with one system, where users can seamlessly switch between completely virtual environments to their own spaces that are augmented with data and visuals. Imagine attending a virtual meeting where you can pitch your latest designs to co-workers across the globe, who are also experiencing it in an immersive environment. Afterward, you're returned to your desk, where your MR device displays prevalent data and notes from the meeting.

All three of these fields still have much more growing before reaching these types of heights, but developers continue to foster new devices and applications.

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