The Critical Differences Between Augmented and Virtual Reality

From programs that categorize cancer cells to apps that let you try on virtual makeup, it seems like everyone is diving into the virtual and augmented reality markets. Yet even in the minds of creators, AR and VR are often conflated. Take, for example, the recent spate of advertising from Samsung Gear, which used Snapchat’s augmented reality feature to advertise their virtual reality headsets.

Why are these technologies so closely linked, and is that to their detriment — or to their benefit?

The first thing to remember is that VR and AR (and MR, which for the purposes of this article we’ll simplify by calling AR) are very much in their infancy. We are still playing in the sandbox of car phones, and we have yet to envision the smartphone of immersive content, let alone build it. In the last month we’ve seen announcements about pre-recorded video that a user can touch, and photogrammetric imaging that will let users walk through photo-realistic virtual worlds, either of which has the power to completely transform VR as we experience it today. The famed Magic Leap promises to be equally metamorphic for augmented reality (but has yet to release a single frame of product), and Tango should bring better AR to our phones.

For now, however, the differences in the technology boils down to one thing: VR replaces the world, while AR augments it (pun intended). Traditionally, that has meant thinking of one as an immersive experience, and the other as an additive experience. To interact with virtual reality, you have to set time aside. The user ‘makes a commitment’ to the experience, in the same way they do for console gaming, going out to the movies, or reading a novel. AR, on the other hand, has been perfect for the gap-time market. Think of TV, magazines, and mobile games; activities that fill the space between other commitments.

But even outside of immersive content, those rules are changing. Television was once an additive experience, but the rise of Netflix and other binge-watching services has meant we are now completely immersing ourselves in TV; conversely, instead of sitting down to read a novel in the evening, we’re carrying ebook readers everywhere with us, so we can read in bits and pieces on the train or as we wait in lines. The lines between additive and immersive media is breaking down, and the line between VR and AR is doing the same.

This breakdown can be seen foremost in newly dubbed “merged reality” headsets. Intel’s newly announced Project Alloy allows for VR and AR from the same device; meanwhile, Canada’s Sulon Q has been working on a similar project for at least a year, and will beat Intel to market. These headsets are proof positive that in the near future, the AR and VR will be semantic distinctions between simultaneous technology.

It won’t be long before a merged form of immersive hardware takes over. The only real question is a semantic one: will virtual, augmented, or merged reality win the naming name?

That remains to be seen.

Originally published at