What’s The Difference Between Virtual Reality And Augmented Reality?

14th Feb 2020
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It’s easy to consider Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) as very recent inventions, but in fact they aren’t at all. For decades, inventors and science fiction writers have hankered for a world of unfettered escapism and freedom, long before the technology had caught up.

Here we look at VR and AR in terms of what they are, their differences and their applications in modern times.

VR and AR

Put simply, Virtual Reality (VR) is completely immersive where the user experiences a made-up world in a fully artificial digital environment. It’s usually achieved using a headset, for example a PSVR or Oculus Rift. Artificial Reality (AR) however, maintains a real-world environment but overlays virtual objects on to it (think Pokemon Go!)

What are the key differences between the two?

The main differences between VR and AR are in their different purposes and how they’re delivered. As mentioned, Augmented Reality adds virtual components to a real-life setting, such as graphics or digital images; essentially it brings a whole new layer of interaction. VR however is completely computer driven, making the entire environment which the user experiences totally fictitious.

With VR mostly delivered via a head-mounted or hand-held controller, users can navigate and control their actions as if they were actually there. AR however is more typically used with mobile devices like mobile phones, tablets and laptops.

Modern uses for VR

There are all sorts of ways VR is now being used in the modern world, perhaps not surprisingly in the gaming industry in particular. Large numbers of gamers have now given VR a go, and it’s starting to become an increasingly familiar part of the gaming experience. Films are also increasingly interactive, with audiences wanting to be ‘part’ of the action rather than merely passive viewers. Indeed, it seems inevitable that over time the line between games and films will be ever more blurred as the two mediums merge.

Virtual Reality is important on many different levels though, not simply in a consumer entertainment sphere. For example, the military has for many years used simulators for training, with VR playing a vital role in real-life simulation. It means that soldiers - as well as the police - can be trained effectively, without putting themselves in any real danger. VR is even now being trialled in Switzerland as a way to show jurors a crime scene more accurately, helping them decide if someone committed a crime or not.

What uses are there for AR?

One particularly common example of AR is in QR codes which you may find whilst you’re out and about or shopping. QR codes are typically scanned using a smartphone, and allow for the user to gain extra information about something, for example the ingredients in a meal. Sometimes they are also found on information boards in zoos or parks to give the visitor further information about the animals around them.

Furthermore, AR allows users to visualise how something in the real world would look if it was subject to a modification. It can do this by taking a picture and then using design software to add in an artificial element to show how it would look in reality. It’s very handy for example in home design, where you can take a real-life room and add in furniture or colour schemes to see what works best.

Retailers also use AR to determine how a particular store can be set-up effectively or how a product will look when it’s displayed on a shelf. It therefore can save a huge amount of time, energy, hassle and of course, money.

How else is VR being used?

Manufacturing is another key area of VR use. Several car brands including Ford and Jaguar are currently using VR as a way to create prototypes of a vehicle in a virtual world. This then allows them to examine the car’s drivability and iron out any flaws before going to the expense of building a real-life model. Other examples of VR use are found in the museum sector, where visitors are able to tour a museum remotely, as well as in medicine to help train surgeons in virtual operating theatres. Therapists are even starting to use it as a way to assist individuals who have been through a traumatic event and are subsequently suffering with PTSD. Indeed, these uses are just a drop in the ocean, and for both VR and AR there are more and more uses being devised as time goes on.

What is ‘Mixed Reality’?

Mixed Reality is a bit of both VR and AR combined. With MR, both real world and virtual items and environments can be manipulated using next-generation imaging and sensing technologies. It allows users to immerse themselves to such an extent that they can interact with a virtual environment using their own hands. In other words, it gives users the chance to keep one foot (or hand) in the real world, whilst the other one resides fully in the virtual one. The experience is truly exhilarating, and breaks down the user’s concept of what’s real and what isn’t.

Although it’s not as well-known as VR and AR, MR is coming into mainstream use at an ever quickening pace. A good example lies in Microsoft’s Hololens, a Mixed Reality device which is already commercially available. A holographic computer is worn around the user’s head, with lenses which go over the eyes and project holograms. These holograms are interactive and can be manipulated just as if they were physical. Featuring five cameras and three sensors, it constantly monitors and ‘learns’ the user’s surroundings, even remembering where digital elements were placed when the user comes back to the system later. Indeed, the user’s apps and windows will stay exactly where they left them.

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