What's The Difference Between Mixed, Virtual And Augmented Reality?

The phrase “reality is not what it seems” has never been so true, in that we can now experience reality in several expanded forms. Technological advances are enabling consumers to experience and interact with the world in entirely new ways. But what do these various terms mean, and how can we differentiate between them?

Augmented reality

Anyone who’s played Pokémon Go will have experienced the peculiar sensations of augmented reality, as strange creatures run around buildings and loiter in parks. By overlaying computer-generated objects onto a live real-world view, it’s possible to see your surroundings in a whole new light. AR is typically displayed through a smartphone camera screen, though it might also involve projections onto special glasses – Google Glass being the best-known example.
Commercial AR applications are currently focused on advertising and retail; the IKEA Place app allows people to ‘see’ whether a specific item of furniture would fit into a space in their home. However, AR’s potential is perhaps best suited to tutorials – how to change engine oil, the perfect way to prepare ingredients for a recipe, and so forth. It’s important to note that while virtual content is overlaid onto real environments, there’s no interaction between the two.

Virtual reality

Virtual reality usually commandeers our senses of sight and sound. Bulky head-mounted displays blackout actual surroundings, immersing users in an artificial environment where physical movement may be interpreted in completely new ways. Lying down could be depicted as flying while jumping up might launch a journey into outer space.
VR involves a replication of an open-world environment, usually requiring the processing power of a PC or games console. Standalone VR units tend to be powered by smartphones, though the relatively primitive nature of this technology means headsets are bulky; graphics may also be blocky and basic. Unless your VR unit is tethered, it’s easy to start walking into (real) furniture and walls, which rather shatters the illusion.

Mixed reality

Confusingly, there are two types of mixed reality:

#1. Virtual objects overlaid on real environments.

This expands upon the projection techniques of AR outlined above, by enabling people to interact with virtual projections. For instance, someone buying a new home could stand in a half-built property and use an iPad app to change the wall colors, move kitchen cabinets around or add extra windows, while simultaneously adjusting their stance and moving closer or further away.

#2. Real objects overlaid on virtual environments.

At this point, the boundaries are blurring with conventional VR. Imagine a role-playing game where you’ve become a medieval warrior. Your coffee mug is suddenly displayed as a goblet of mead, while your cat turns into a fire-breathing dragon. Facebook is betting on VR, but Microsoft believes MR represents the more likely future of reality-plus. Blackout headsets monitor our surroundings, whereas translucent headsets project holograms in front of a user’s eyes.

Which is best?

In truth, the answer to this question depends on what’s being attempted. If you want to experience a roller coaster at Universal Studios, VR is the obvious choice, while a tutorial on unblocking a sink would be better in AR. And mixed reality is seen as the gold standard for education, creating immersive experiences far removed from a textbook or PowerPoint-based learning.
Each form of technology also has its drawbacks. Untethered VR is potentially dangerous, while tethering feels restrictive and claustrophobic. AR is easily distracting, yet mixed reality quickly gets confusing. However, you can expect all three forms of reality-plus to gain in popularity as technology advances and the costs of hardware/software diminish. Reality may never be the same again…