Virtual reality and augmented reality are gaining importance and prominence in our modern society. They are being used to train workers on highly technical tasks, and now with new mobile devices having specialized LiDAR sensors built-in, augmented reality is at our fingertips for most smartphone users.
Virtual reality and its close relative augmented reality are here to stay as facets of how we interact with technology in our daily lives. While most people still haven't experienced fully immersive VR or even AR, that sure to change as developers take more and more advantage of these visualization and experiential tools
To the casual onlooker, both augmented reality and virtual reality may appear to be the same thing, a way to bring the digital into the physical. However, in practice, development, and function, they're actually quite different. In order to fully grasp these differences, let's take a dive into understanding each technology individually and then spot the differences.
What is virtual reality?
Virtual reality is a fully immersive experience that takes place in a fully digital realm with a mixed resemblance to reality. VR can take you to far off lands with ease, but it requires that you wear a headset that blocks out the real world. While you've probably seen someone wearing a VR headset, if you haven't yourself, it can be kind of hard to understand what's going on in there.
In the headset there are a pair of lenses that you look through to see an LCD screen. When the lenses are coupled with a screen with high-resolution, you get a 3D view of what appears to be a real (virtual) life.
Common headsets are the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift, but you can make VR work with a lens array and a regular smartphone too. The key facet to VR is that you look through lenses with both of your eyes that project onto a fully immersive screen, not a transparent one.
Inside of VR while wearing a headset, you can be in a game with a singular viewpoint, or, you can be completely immersed in a 360-degree world to view. In general, though, the applications you use for VR allow some form of "looking around" and the headsets provide the feedback needed to translate the user's head movement into VR game movement as well.
Most VR headsets utilize a concept known as six-degrees-of-freedom or 6DOF for motion tracking. Utilizing a variety of sensors, this allows the headsets to detect both the direction you're facing and the movement that you make as you are still moving in the physical world. VR headsets that utilize 6DOF give you a sense of actually moving in the virtual space with virtual hands. While you generally can't walk a great distance in these scenarios, they feel more real than locked down VR environments.
One of the biggest drawbacks to virtual reality devices and environments is the fact that you're still physically in the actual world, not the virtual one. This creates an uncanny valley effect that can hold you back from fully experiencing the immersive nature of VR. There are devices created and in development that try to circumvent this feeling by allowing you to walk in place endlessly, but they're bulky and not for the average consumer.
Certain VR headsets that are meant for mobile platforms don't have the 6DOF concept involved, rather they have only three degrees or 3DOF. Because these devices rely primarily on inputs from smartphones, they can only track direction, not position and movement. These types of VR consoles work best with traditional gaming controllers, like XBOX or Playstation.
At the end of the day though, the important takeaway of understanding VR is that virtual reality is fully immersive and requires some intensive hardware. Now, let's move onto understanding what augmented reality is.
What is augmented reality?
Augmented reality is both a step back from VR as well as a step in a completely different direction. Augmented reality incorporates the real world that you're currently in into the virtual space it creates. Rather than fully blocking off your view of reality, it augments it to either make it more exciting or more functional.
For example, common examples of AR devices are Microsoft's HoloLens, the failed Google Glass, and various other smart glasses technologies. Augmented reality technology allows you to still exist in the real world while adding excitement to it. The infamous mobile game Pokemon Go mobile app game is a great example of modern AR. You could walk around with your camera out and a pokemon would appear in front of you for you to battle and catch.
The Pokemon were visually projected into the real world through a digital lens, smartphone camera.
AR display tools can also be used for less "fun" things and for more practical things such as displaying a recipe while you're cooking or letting you look through your daily calendar while you're stuck in a meeting. These digital functions would be projected onto a transparent screen and the user would feel like they were holograms in the middle of the room. While Microsoft has its HoloLens, another company called Magic Leap has created a device called One. Magic Leap, however, has kept the device largely away from public use, but the demonstrations of its functionality have been the most impressive looking AR on the market.
The biggest downside to AR is how limited it is. AR can really only be utilized in 2 ways, through transparent lenses for your eyes or through a smartphone camera. The technology needed to transform regular glasses into functional AR screens isn't here yet, which means that anyone who wants to utilize AR in their daily life in this way would need a fairly bulky headset.
If you're experiencing AR through a camera and screen, well then you're limited by the device and perspective it gives you. AR through screens is arguably the most functional use of the tech. You could use it to try on new clothes at home, see what a piece of furniture would look like in your living room, or do more sci-fi functions like using it to organize or sort physical objects.
The use cases for AR are fairly limited as for gaming, the applications are niche and gimmicky at the moment. For daily life, the applications are both niche and either require a bulky headset or physical interaction with a screened device.
One of the other biggest differences with AR is that it requires highly specific motion and environment tracking, similar to 6DOF. The new iPads and many new smart devices have LiDAR sensors just for this purpose. LiDar allows the device to get a highly accurate digital 3D map that it can then project a digital environment on to. Developing a 3D model for AR can be done with cameras and some software, but it's not as accurate as having an actual depth sensor is, thus the trend to start adding these sensors to smart devices.
The main differences in the technologies
AR is definitely the harder of the two technologies to perfectly work into daily life if it isn't perfect. With VR, since the space is fully virtual, it doesn't have to match up with the physical in terms of interaction and feel. For AR, the digital projects both need to feel real, map to a real-world space, and provide added value to the user.
VR and AR accomplish different things in highly variant ways, even though they are similar in scope. Virtual reality's intention is to completely replace our physical reality and take us into a new world. Augmented reality is meant to alter our current reality and make it more fun or functional. Neither of these technologies is going away anytime soon, but both will require significant advances before they become more commonplace in our everyday lives.