Digital technology has altered life in countless ways, but even the arrival of reality-bending hardware hasn’t changed our tendency to label and categorize. Sometimes, the differences between the lines we draw are minute, but nonetheless notable, as is the case for virtual, augmented and mixed reality. Since each of these terms define slight variations of the same subject–computer-generated sensory input–those unfamiliar with tech jargon might be confused as to what exactly sets them apart.
Virtual reality (VR) has been the dream of engineers and tech enthusiasts since science fiction writers first told stories of humans traversing an entirely holographic universe, free from the laws of physical reality. Today, VR devices such as the Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear have brought us closer than ever to achieving a fully immersive virtual environment.
In fact, the level of immersion is what distinguishes VR from its cousins; VR’s key characteristic is presence, or the ability to fool the brain into thinking it is physically interacting with a virtual plane. Most current VR accomplishes this using a head mounted display (HMD) through which visuals and audio are broadcast, dropping users deep into prehistoric jungles, faraway planets, or any one of a limitless number of digitally rendered worlds.
Like VR, augmented reality (AR) is often delivered through wearable devices, many of which are useful in an industrial setting, such as the Daqri Smart Helmet, which allows users to “see” through walls. The difference, however, is that rather than removing users from reality altogether, AR overlays digital input atop a real-world field of view.
Many of AR’s popular applications come in the form of mobile applications and features. Pokemon GO–a game in which users walk between real world locations in search of digital creatures to capture–reached $1 billion in revenue faster than any other mobile game. AR’s prime quality is the ability to combine real and virtual experience, without its virtual input directly influencing physical space. For example, Snapchat filters use facial recognition to overlay digital graphics atop video input, but the illusion only works if one’s face is within range of the camera.
Mixed reality (MR) reaches beyond the boundaries of its predecessors; it fuses the blended reality of AR with VR’s immersive, interactive experience. With MR, virtual and real objects intermingle in real time. Like VR, most MR experience also involves a headset, but the illusion is deeper than AR; real world movements and gestures actively affect the way in which holographic objects are displayed, and, in some cases, virtual input enacts a real world response as well.
A good example of MR is Microsoft’s Hololens, a headset that bills itself as “the first self-contained, holographic computer.” It displays fully interactive, three-dimensional holograms, which can be influenced via hand gestures. It also allows for hologram sharing between users, enabling collaboration on designs, as well as a variety of other professional applications.
While the differences between the three as they stand are distinct, if not substantial, the divide between them may continue to blur and be redefined as the technology progresses, and immersion improves across the board.