Exploring realities: VR vs. AR

Two likeminded experiences are competing to be the lead direction for technology’s future, but what is the difference between Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality? 

The term “reality” used to be easy to define. “The state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them,” asserts the Oxford Dictionary conclusively.

So open your eyes, look around, and what you see is your reality. It may not be the exact same reality as the one the next person perceives, but essential laws – like gravity, and light, and the need to respire – unify us all.

Recently, technology has thrown reality a curveball. Suddenly you can see, hear, touch and in some cases even smell the “idealistic” and the “notional,” as existence makes way for the imaginary.

Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are leading this technological evolution.

While neither are particularly new technologies, over the last 24 months huge leaps in key areas such as mobility, connectivity, movement tracking, camera resolutions and processor speeds have made them more affordable and even commonplace.

But what is the difference; how do you spot your augmented from your virtual realities? 

What is Augmented Reality? 

The term “Augmented Reality” can be taken literally. It refers to a version of the real world that has been enhanced or altered by a computer.

This computer sits between the real world and the individual, influencing what they see.

It can take the form of a dedicated product, designed specifically to create an AR environment, or it could be something as commonplace as a smartphone.

But, whatever form it takes, it does not take you entirely out of the real world: any of the real objects you see remain very much grounded in the rules that apply to our everyday lives – what goes up must come down.

It is only the artificially-generated elements of your experience, the ones generated by your AR unit, that can ignore the laws of physics at a whim.

Perhaps the most straightforward and widely used application of Augmented Reality occurs through the mobile phone.

When you hold up your phone with the camera activated, what appears on your screen is a minor example of Augmented Reality.

If you look at a tree; you see reality – a tree. If you hold up your phone, the camera takes in the image of a tree, then displays that on the screen.  

However, your phone is free to take the image between entering the camera and displaying on your screen, and add whatever it wants.

Depending on the developer and the purpose of the software, this could be anything.

A simple fitness app, for example, may overlay distances, routes and speeds over the real landscape to give you tangible feedback and information on your workout.

More advanced software, like recent sensation Pokémon Go, can place imaginary creatures and objects in the world.

Snapchat, on the other hand, can alter the appearance of objects in real time, allowing you to take on the appearance of a dog, or replacing your face with a terrifying Halloween visage while you make funny faces at your camera. Turn on your rear camera and you can view a friend with the same effects.

When you look past the phone, everything is normal. There is no Pokémon in the grass, nor has your friend's face actually been replaced by a maniacal pumpkin head.

But if you look at the grass through the phone’s screen, it has been augmented by the software and you might see a Pokémon running about. The same goes for your friend's face when viewing them via a Snapchat filter.

Microsoft is also working on a device called the HoloLens, which similarly provides a hands-free solution for augmenting reality and enabling the user to interact with that enhanced world.

The most important thing to keep in mind with Augmented Reality is that, while it can insert virtual elements into your vision, it keeps one foot firmly planted in the real world. 

What is Virtual Reality? 

Virtual Reality, on the other hand, does not. Both feet, figuratively at least, leave the real world and the mind is cast into an environment completely constructed by a computer – a virtual world.

Whereas Augmented Reality can require limited wearable technology (such as when playing a game like Pokémon Go on your phone), Virtual Reality involves a headset that – ideally – takes full ownership of everything you can see and hear.

With these senses under a developer’s control, smart design can see the human mind convinced it is in this virtually constructed reality.

Virtual Reality has existed in some form or other for a long time now, and a lot of its primary uses have retained real world rules.

Flight simulators and medical training software, for example, try to mimic reality to provide a safe environment for education in areas of consequence.

The use of motion controls – including devices you hold, head tracking and body tracking – provide one-to-one interaction with these virtual worlds to complete the illusion. 

However, the rules of the real world need not apply in VR – as everything you see is virtually constructed, what goes up need not come down.

Over the past 18-months, Virtual Reality has boomed, particularly in the gaming space.

In these experiences, a player – or players, thanks to the growing use of connected VR via fast broadband – is in a fully virtual world, acting out the impossible.

It’s incredible how visceral these games are and how convinced your mind can be that these computer-generated landscapes are in fact real – to the point where a sensation of motion and G-force can be felt, even if that sensation is all in your head.

This complete feeling of being somewhere else is the hallmark of Virtual Reality and is what separates it from Augmented Reality.

Albert Einstein once mused: “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” A fascinating thought when you consider that in our futures lies the possibility that the most persistent reality we experience need not necessarily be the one in which we live. 

There are certainly some exciting prospects in our connected future. Read more about AR, and what it could mean for your lifestyle at home.