One of the first questions that people new to the immersive technology scene ask, is about the difference between virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). And then there are also such terms as mixed reality (MR) and extended reality (XR) that make things even more complicated. To help clear that up, I will go through the key augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality, and extended reality concepts and provide some examples.

What is virtual reality?

Virtual reality (VR) is the first alternate reality that came on the mass market and can be experienced by wearing a VR headset. Wearing VR glasses is like having a screen in front of your eyes. Physically you can’t see anything else than what’s presented by the headset, which means that you are completely immersed in the given digital environment. You could be at home, put on a VR headset and instantaneously be teleported to a whole different world (not literally, of course, but when it comes to your audiovisual experience).

Here is an example of VR in action, including “the making of”. In an entertainment stunt, hundreds of people got the opportunity to join a rallycross champion for a virtual reality drive. In the real-life environment, we saw people sitting in car seats that were mounted to a wall in a shopping center, but the virtual reality headset put them in a rally car on a rallycross track.

VR is the best-known term on the market because the tech was initially very accessible. It started with the Google Cardboard headset, which allowed mobile phones to be mounted to users’ heads. Samsung Gear was the next big thing, and the company was offering the VR head-mount with every phone purchase.

Soon other brands like Oculus joined. The technology in 5 to 10 years has developed remarkably and is no longer just a freebie on the side. It has lots of entertainment use cases and great potential in gaming. But it also can add a lot of value to education, starting from primary school learning up to industrial and medical training.

What is the difference between virtual reality and augmented reality?

The main concept of augmented reality is to add to the reality we experience at any given time instead of overwriting the current surroundings. So whilst VR will take you away from what’s around you, AR will place digital objects in your environment through your handheld device.

A great use case for augmented reality in retail is providing customers with benefits that once were solely reserved for in-store shopping. This can include trying on makeup, glasses or clothing. AR can also be a great tool for helping customers understand the spatial presence of objects, such as placing furniture (👉 read our in-depth article about Augmented reality for furniture) in their immediate location and seeing if it fits into their kitchen per se.

Here are some examples of try before you buy in augmented reality:

Augmented reality has excellent industrial applications. For example, until recently we were looking at instructions on how to build or fix something and comparing them to reality. These days augmented reality allows for the real object to be scanned and an overlay to be presented on top of the object. Here is a cool example from the Munich-based RE’FLEKT:

The AR market is developing rapidly and it is becoming more and more accessible for consumers not only to view AR but also to create own augmented reality content, such as augmented photos albums, greeting cards or wedding invites.

Mixed reality vs. augmented reality vs. virtual reality

Mixed reality is similar to augmented reality as it won’t remove you from your surroundings, but rather read your surroundings and add digital objects to your environment. However, unlike with AR content, which can be retrieved using a mobile device, you will need a headset to experience mixed reality.

Mixed reality vs. augmented reality

Although the use cases for mixed reality and augmented reality can overlap, to some extent mixed reality may allow greater interaction with digital content as users can go handsfree, there is no need to hold onto a mobile device to keep it going. However, it is also what makes it less accessible to the mass market. It is estimated that more than 5 billion people across the globe have mobile devices and the same cannot be said about MR glasses, which are still in the early stages and quite pricey.

But there is no doubt that mixed reality has huge potential. There are still lots of hardware and software improvements necessary to implement the theoretical ideas people have, but it is just a matter of time. Here is a futuristic demo from Microsoft on how work in mixed reality could be like:

And here is another imagination of how our everyday lives could look in Mixed reality headsets. This one is very over-exaggerated, but there are some exciting concepts:

What is extended reality and where will it take us?

Extended reality is an umbrella term for virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality.

Virtual reality had a head start before augmented and mixed reality hit the market. It still has vast growth opportunities as companies are working on bodysuits, aiming to provide full-body VR experiences.

However, I believe that augmented reality and later mixed reality are going to team up and win the race. AR already offers us great use cases in marketing, education, art, etc. The only true difference between MR and AR is the interface. Today it is a mobile device, tomorrow we’ll have glasses or even more futuristic – smart contact lenses. And as the interface changes, both of these terms will merge together.

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