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The Reality-Virtuality Continuum

Understanding Augmented and Virtual Reality for Marketing

There is a fair amount of confusion about the differences between augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). In news reports and in the blogosphere, these terms are not always used distinctly and the wrong companies are often identified as working in the AR or VR space. A conceptual framework established more than 35 years ago may be useful for establishing clarity.

Digital marketing professionals tend to become experts in the platforms that they sell and market or that they use to sell and market other products and services.

In either case, digital marketing professionals must understand how virtual and augmented realities will transform the principal mediums through, which our work is accomplished.

The first step, then, is to understand the conceptual framework of virtual reality and augmented reality as a prelude to mastering the new technologies, platforms and mediums associated with them.


In the early 1990s, researchers Paul Milgram, Haruo Takemura, Akira Utsumi, and Fumio Kishino introduced a concept called the reality-virtuality (RV) continuum (Milgram, 1994). While the researchers originally designed the reality-virtuality continuum to address mixed reality and the display technologies of the era, the original framework is still quite useful.
 They defined mixed reality environments as those in which “real world and virtual world objects are presented together…”. Their definition of mixed reality served as an umbrella term that encompassed both virtual and augmented reality technologies.

The term ‘mixed reality’ has since largely fallen out of use. Since the companies in this space have staked their branding and functional identities in one medium or the other, there has been little reason to use the term.

According to Milgram et al., there are many variations of technology-altered forms of reality beyond the four listed in Figure 1.

They chose, however, to highlight four prominent versions in what they called their “simplified representation of a[n] RV Continuum.”

Differences Between Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality

  1. First, there is unadorned, unaltered reality with a capital R. A real environment is “any environment consisting solely of real objects, and includes whatever might be observed when viewing a real-world scene either directly in person, or through…some sort of video display.” Note that simply viewing a real environment through digital means, such as through a phone, tablet or computer does not make it virtual.
  2. Second, there is augmented reality which consists of a primarily real environment with digital and virtual data, images and objects superimposed or layered upon the real world. An example of augmented reality companies would be Magic Leap and Blippar.
  3. Third, there is also augmented virtuality (a term not currently in use but descriptive of the technologies on the horizon), which consists of spaces that are primarily virtual with some real objects, images, and data introduced into the virtual world. As an aside, if virtual objects are superimposed or layered upon real environments as in the case of augmented reality, how should we describe real objects introduced into primarily virtual environments as in the case of augmented virtuality?
  4. Fourth, the Milgram definition of virtual environments/virtual reality includes both immersive virtual worlds as well as those that are only monitor-based so long as the simulations consist “solely of virtual objects.” This definition is cumbersome and outdated because virtual reality environments can now be launched through a variety of hardware technologies. A more modern definition of the term follows:
  • Virtual reality consists of any environment that is entirely virtual and immersive such that the cognitively transported person interacts with only virtual objects.
  • Note that this formulation of virtual reality depends on the level to which the perception of the human being is altered, rather than the mechanism through which the alteration is achieved.

Quickly Identifying the Difference Between Augmented and Virtual Tech

An easy way to determine whether a technology is augmented reality or based on virtual reality is to think about what is being altered.

Virtual Objects Added to Real World: When the real-world space within which the human being resides has virtual objects added, then you are dealing with augmented reality technologies.

Real Objects Added to Virtual World: When a virtual environment has real objects inserted, then you are dealing with augmented virtuality technologies. Augmented virtuality is not a commonly used term. And it does not currently seem to correspond to any existing commercially viable hardware or software.

Perception of Human Altered Completely: When the mind, perception, and senses of a person are altered 100% then it is virtual reality technology at hand.

The reality-virtuality continuum proposed by Milgram et al., identified a range of modifications to reality that now correspond directly to the augmented and virtual reality technologies of our day, rather than the hypothetical technologies of the early 1990s.

Above all, for marketers interested in this space, the framework’s division of reality provides an easy way to conceptualize appropriate campaigns and identify the correct virtual or augmented reality partners.