Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are both technologies that enhance users’ digital experiences, but they do so in distinctly different ways. Virtual reality completely immerses users in a simulated, 3D environment, while augmented reality enhances the real world with contextual digital layers of information.
Virtual reality uses head-mounted displays, such as the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, to fully immerse users in a digital world. The displays block out the real world and replace it entirely with computer-generated sensory input like graphics, sounds, sometimes even scents and tactile feedback. This creates a truly synthetic world that replicates the sensations of reality. Users have full freedom to look anywhere within the virtual space using head tracking, making the illusion very convincing. Popular uses of VR include gaming experiences like Beat Saber or educational/training simulations where the goal is to feel fully present within the virtual environment. The key aspect is that VR aims to replace reality rather than enhance it.
In contrast, augmented reality uses see-through displays to superimpose computer-generated images, video, and data onto the real world. Popular AR devices include Microsoft HoloLens, Magic Leap, and mobile AR through phones like the iPhone or Android phones. Instead of blocking out reality, AR enhances it by adding a digital layer. Users can still see the real world through the displays, but virtual objects are placed directly into the real environment. For example, an AR app might place dinosaurs or animals into your living room, which you can then see interacting with physical objects. AR headsets also enable context-aware overlays like repair instructions that literally appear in your field of view when looking at a machine. Rather than transporting users to entirely new worlds like VR does, AR brings the digital into the user’s physical surroundings.
Some key distinctions between virtual reality and augmented reality include:
Immersion – VR aims to totally immerse users in a synthetic world and replace their perception of reality. AR enhances real environments but doesn’t fully replace them.
Displays – VR uses opaque headsets to block out real sight, while AR uses transparent displays that allow viewing real-world surroundings.
Perspective – In VR, the user’s viewpoint comes from within the virtual world. In AR, the virtual objects augment one’s true perspective on real environments.
Context – VR prioritizes placing the user within virtual contexts. AR emphasizes contextual information relevant to the user’s physical environment and activity.
Tracking – VR tracks a user’s full body and head movements to react within virtual places. AR tracks objects and users’ movements within real spaces to place virtual elements.
User Experience – VR transports users to new places, while AR brings information into users’ existing physical contexts in the real world.
Popular uses of VR currently include gaming, 360-degree video, simulations, and virtual tours. But the technology is also being applied for purposes like architectural design reviews, industrial worker training, and phobia exposure therapy. AR is prevalent in areas like engineering, medicine, education, and consumer apps. Some examples include layout tools for interior decorating, assembly assistance for machinery repairs, interactive museum exhibits, and gaming through titles like Pokémon GO.
As the technology rapidly advances, the line between VR and AR will likely blur further. Some headsets are striving for a “mixed reality” experience combining virtual and augmented qualities. Near-eye displays are getting smaller, see-through, and higher resolution to create more seamless integration of real and virtual elements. Tracking systems are becoming more precise and context-aware interfaces more intelligent. This could lead to merged experiences where fully virtual places are accessible within real world spaces.
While both technologies involve computer-generated enhancements to digital visual experiences, virtual reality focuses on completely replacing reality with synthetic sensory worlds, while augmented reality aims to digitally enhance and provide context to our true physical reality rather than replace it. The two are becoming more integrated in their goals, but for now their major distinction lies in whether they primarily transport users to fully virtual places or overlay information onto existing real environments. Both virtual and augmented technologies will continue converging to shape new mixed reality experiences in the future.