Virtual Reality vs. Augmented Reality

There has been a lot of news and excitement lately about the potential applications of both augmented reality and virtual reality. But though they are often mentioned in the same sentence and are closely related in terms of the technology they use, the two distinct technologies actually represent different capacities and potentials. As The Economist cleverly put it, “If virtual reality is ‘The Matrix,’ then augmented reality is ‘The Terminator.’”
The most defining characteristic of virtual reality is immersion. That is, it aims to completely immerse the user in a new world and thus requires them to put on a headset to do so. Using motion sensors and a technique called stereoscopy, a VR headset “fools [a user’s] brain into creating an illusion of depth, transforming the pair of images into a single experience of a fully three-dimensional world.” Examples of VR include Facebook’s Oculus Rift headset and Sony’s Morpheus,
Augmented reality, on the other hand, uses the actual world as a canvas upon which to layer computer-generated enhancements. It cannot ask the user to sever his or her connection with the world in front of them because it uses that as a blank canvas instead. The most prominent example of augmented reality to be released recently is Pokémon Go, in which gamers use their smartphone to catch virtual Pokémon in actual GPS locations dotted around the world. Another real-world application of AR that didn’t fare as well was Google Glass, which superimposed information in front of the user’s eye while they viewed the outside world. However, for various reasons this failed to take off and reach mass usership.
As the mobile app Augment put it on their blog, “Augmented reality and virtual reality are inverse reflections of one in another with what each technology seeks to accomplish and deliver for the user. Virtual reality offers a digital recreation of a real life setting, while augmented reality delivers virtual elements as an overlay to the real world.”
Given these differences, AR and VR have slightly different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to their applications in the real world, and in creating new worlds. Here is a look at some of them, and at which format fares better at enhancing or enriching the real world.
Entertainment/gaming: VR is the clear winner here, as its immersive qualities allows it to create entirely new worlds which allow the user to escape their more boring version of reality. While AR can also be used to create an entertaining experience, the fact that it doesn’t offer full immersion, but rather just adds on to reality, means it’s not quite as entertaining and engrossing than VR.
Factual/education: Both AR and VR have great applications in this space, so it’s hard to pick a clear winner. VR can be used as a documentary storytelling method to transport users to a part of the world they could never visit, and allow them to experience life as a person there might. One example of this was the New York Times NYT VR reader, which they distributed to readers last year along with 5 tailor made stories from around the world. On the other hand, AR can help enhance education methods for students or learners who are struggling with concepts that might be best explained with the help of computer generation.
Science/medicine: AR has real applications in medicine and science as it allows medical professionals to stay rooted in the real world of the patient in front of them, but can enhance how and what they see and thus improve treatment. Though many medical applications of AR are still in an experimental phase, the sector holds a lot of potential for future growth.