VR, AR and MR: What’s the difference?

Technology has a love for acronyms and the nascent field of virtual reality is even more prone to two-letter tags than most.

Currently, the most popular terms when talking about virtual realities are VR, AR and MR. You’ve almost definitely seen the first one written down, might have heard the second, and are likely the most uncertain about the third. To give you a better idea of the differences between these three terms, here is a concise guide to what they mean and how they differ.

Virtual reality (VR)

VR stands for virtual reality, and is most often used as an umbrella term for all sorts of immersive, computer-simulated environments. This means that you can probably get away with calling AR and MR subsections of VR, although for the purposes of distinguishing the three we’re going to be a little stricter in our definition.

In these terms, virtual reality is a totally computer-simulated version of reality (at least as far as sound and vision go). Head-mounted displays (HMDs) like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR, as well as mobile-based headsets like Google Daydream and Samsung Gear, are all VR hardware. You strap them onto your face, and are immersed in a digital environment.

Another subsection of VR is 360-degree video. Special cameras capture these images, so they’re not computer-made virtual environments, but you still experience them using a VR headset.

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The main concept here is immersion, and the sense of presence this can provide. Ideally, a VR user should feel like they have been transported from their living room into a totally different space. Having your field of vision taken up by a virtual world can trick your brain into feeling physically present within that reality. (Or it can make you feel sick, particularly when motion is involved.)

These ideas about presence and immersion are often talked about in the same breath as empathy; about the potential for VR to communicate another person’s perspective – making a user feel physically involved in a way screen-based film cannot.

Further reading

Augmented reality (AR)

If virtual reality is total immersion, augmented reality is all about layering virtual elements onto the real world. Pokémon Go is probably the most well-known example of this technique, with a nexus of magical animals layered onto a real-world map and what you can see via your phone’s camera.

Devices such as Google Glass were early attempts to integrate AR into headwear, but while there are reports that Apple is working on hardware dedicated to AR, and there are some crazy patents about AR contact lenses, the current mode for AR is to layer virtual elements using pre-existing devices such as  smartphones and tablets.

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While there was a lot of buzz around virtual-reality headsets last year, this is quietly shifting towards the wider user of augmented reality. Apple, which was notably absent from the VR fray, is leading the charge here with its ARKit platform for iOS 11 – slated for Q3 2017. So far only a handful of developer projects have been revealed, except for a collaboration between Apple and Ikea that will allow users to virtual impose furniture in their own homes.  

Further reading:

Mixed reality (MR)

Here’s where things become fuzzier. Up until recently, AR has been distinguished by a level of disconnect between the virtual and real world. You may have information imposed on your field of vision – like images or text – but these virtual elements are not anchored to the real world, and do not respond to physical objects in real-time.

Mixed reality, on the other hand, does involve a strong element of interaction between physical and digital elements. The clearest case of this is Microsoft’s HoloLens, which can impose virtual models of buildings, bodies and vehicles that designers can walk around, inspect and tweak as they see fit. Experimental hardware such as the Magic Leap and Intel’s Project Alloy prototype have given a glimpse of where this path could lead, potentially encompassing elements like haptics (touch).  lemmings_comes_to_microsoft_hololens

With the advent of Apple’s ARKit, however, the lines between AR and MR have blurred somewhat. You could argue the Ikea app, for example, is actually a form of mixed reality as it allows users to walk around virtual furniture on a real-world carpet, as it if were a physical object. In this regard, some have said MR is another way of saying ‘“true AR”.

What’s likely is that, as digital-physical interactions become more sophisticated, one term will simply be eaten by the other. Many believe the less geeky-sounding mixed reality will prevail, although AR is persisting. Then again, it does look less like Mr., and sounds less like you’re going to talk about an MRI, so it might ultimately be the easiest to adopt.

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