At the time of the art form’s humble beginnings in the early 1970s, the most complex video games were two white rectangles bouncing a square “ball” back and forth. Todya, we have games that are so immersive and deep that even the developers can’t beat them. The industry, the products and the tools we use to play them would be unrecognizable if you took them back in time to show the gamers of yesteryear. But if emerging technologies are any indication, that evolution is far from over.
Two cutting edge technologies. Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR), both of which already exist in one form or another today, are very likely to represent the next big step forward in the world of gaming technologies. They are already impacting commerce, business, design, entertainment and much more.
But what exactly is the difference? And where do they go from here?
What is Virtual Reality?
Virtual reality is essentially when you completely replace the real world with a digital one†
The history of virtual reality actually goes all the way back to 1960 – when the very first head-mounted VR display called the Telesphere Mask was invented by a man named Morton L Heilig. While this headset was quite rudimentary by today’s standards, it offered stereoscopic 3D, wide view, and stereo sound – a bit like a 3D cinema you could wear on your head. Though more complicated and advanced, most VR headsets today still operate on the same basic principles as these.
VR is a bit like jumping into a video game, where wearing a headset (and usually interacting with the space via some sort of controller or remote) takes you into an all-digital world, realm or universe and completely, purposefully, obscuring the real world in the process.
However, there are several ways to go about this. Some VR headsets, such as Google’s Daydream View, are not standalone devices. They rely on a smartphone to function as the screen and use a Bluetooth remote to communicate with the phone screen. As VR technology has become more advanced and technically more advanced devices have become more readily available and affordable, they have begun to feel increasingly primitive by comparison.
Other headsets like PlayStation VR (and the upcoming VR 2) require a larger system — in this case, a PlayStation console — with cables that attach the headset to the machine in order to function.
The best of both worlds, and what appears to be the dominant application of virtual reality, can be found in the latest generation of stand-alone VR headsets. Meta’s Quest 2 (formerly Oculus) is one such device, which has its own headset, remotes/controllers and does not require a paired computer to function and, increasingly, offers a functionally equivalent level of performance.
What do you do in VR? Options range from simple, Viewmaster-style experiences like the Stranger Things Experience from a few years ago, to full-fledged video games with dozens of hours of content to play through, like the VR port of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim† Be that as it may, the experience has to completely replace actual reality (temporarily or not) to qualify as VR. If this looks a bit like 1999 The Matrix for you, you’re right about the money – that universe is a pretty good (if not exactly tempting) analogy for what VR is.
What is augmented reality?
Augmented reality is essentially when you add a digital layer on top of the real world itself.
While VR is completely immersive, augmented reality has probably crept into your life somehow without you noticing – it’s much more subtle and has more real-world applications at the moment. For example, if you’ve ever played Pokémon Go, that’s AR. If you’ve ever tried a virtual furniture app to see what a new piece, like a sofa, would look like in your living room (IKEA, Target, and Wayfair all have one), that’s AR. If you’ve used an app to virtually try out sneakers or clothes, it’s AR. If you’ve downloaded an app to show you the constellations in the night sky, it’s AR. The list goes on.
In practical terms, augmented reality is when you look at reality through a gadget with a screen and a camera—usually a phone at this stage—which makes it seem like something digital exists in that real, physical space.
Current consumer applications of this technology tend to oscillate between entertainment and commerce, there are plenty of other commercial applications where AR is incredibly useful. Ford, for example, began using AR technology in the mid-2010s to design cars using Microsoft’s HoloLens. Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar Range Rover and more have used similar versions of the technology. And that’s just the automotive industry, just some of the many diverse industries currently using augmented reality technology. Even Disneyland uses AR technology for some of its latest and greatest attractions, such as Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure (and it has future plans for its own proprietary, glasses-free AR). As you can clearly see, even if you were completely unaware of this technology, how it works, and its many, many uses, you probably still interacted with it to some degree.
What is the difference between VR and AR?
As we’ve established, the main difference is whether you completely replace the real world (VR) or add a digital layer on top (AR)
However, other differences arise from this distinction. Since VR involves fully virtual three-dimensional spaces, it necessarily requires a headset of some sort to block out the real world. And because you can’t see where you’re going, or your real human hands, it’s too requires some sort of controller device for moving and controlling your digital self. And while virtual worlds are computationally intensive to build and display, they don’t necessarily require a lot of computing power to run, if enough pre- or remote computation is done.
Augmented reality, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily require a head-mounted display or controller, as you can still see the real world, walk around in it, and use your hands. However, it requires some sort of camera to record the real world as input, and significant processing power to map a digital reality on top of it.
Virtual reality is like a fake universe that you jump into and augmented reality is like putting fake stuff in the real world.
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