Virtual and augmented reality seem to be on everybody’s lips nowadays, both promising to revamp the tech scene and change the way consumers interact in the digital space. Despite the hype and media attention, the two often get confused as some people use the terms interchangeably. While there are many similarities between virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), the two are definitely distinguishable. Let’s dive into these differences.
Virtual reality is a computer simulated reality in which a user can interact with replicated real or imaginary environments. The experience is totally immersive by means of visual, auditive and haptic (touch) stimulation so the constructed reality is almost indistinguishable from the real deal. You’re completely inside it.
Marked by clunky beginnings, the idea of an alternate simulated reality took off in the late ’80s and early ’90s, a time when personal computer development exploded and a lot of people became excited about what technology had to offer. These attempts, like the disastrous Nintendo Virtual Boy which shut down after only one year, were marked by failure after failure, so everyone seemed to lose faith in VR.
Then came Palmer Luckey, who is undoubtedly the father of contemporary VR thanks to his Oculus Rift. Luckey built his first prototype in 2011, when he was barely 18, and quickly raised $2 million with Kickstarter. In 2014, Facebook bought Oculus Rift for $2 billion.
While VR completely immerses the user in a simulated reality, AR blends the virtual and real. Like VR, an AR experience typically involves some sort of goggles through which you can view a physical reality whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. In augmented reality, the real and the non-real or virtual can be easily told apart.
Wearing Google Glass — the biggest effort a company ever made to bring AR to mass consumers — you can walk through a conference hall and see things ‘pop to life’ around the booths, such as animated 3D graphics of an architecture model if the technology is supported. The goggles aren’t even necessary since you can do this via mobile apps which use a smartphone’s or tablet’s camera to scan the environment while augmented elements will show on the display. There are other creative means, as well.
Unfortunately, Google Glass didn’t take off and the company discontinued the product in 2015. Instead, AR apps on smartphones are much more popular, possibly because they’re less creepy than a pair of glasses with cameras.