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Augmented Reality vs. Virtual Reality: How Are They Different?

Maja Nowak
Content Manager
Technology
AR Development

Cross-reality experiences have been in our culture for a few decades, filling our imaginations with seemingly endless possibilities. Today, we have quite a few cross-reality technologies to indulge ourselves, including the two most commonly known: augmented reality and virtual reality.

Both technologies have been gaining momentum for some time now, to finally reach a point where they are actively used across industries. But how are these two technologies different? What goes under the hood that makes this tech possible? Let’s check it out.

AR as seen in Terminator 2, back in 1991.


What is Virtual Reality?

Virtual reality (VR) immerses the user in an entirely projected environment. In other words, VR is a computer-generated simulation, where the user can interact with the projected environment. Imagine putting a VR headset and being dumped into an Antarctic research station to explore the compound.

How Virtual Reality Works?

VR headsets use external sensors and cameras to enable a multi-level interaction with the simulation.

The sensors and cameras let VR headsets know where you’re looking and how you’re moving. The 6DOF (six degrees of freedom) movement tracking takes care of head and hand gesture recognition and movement identification.

Technology-wise, we have three distinctions of VR headsets:

Tethered

Tethered VR headsets are connected to the computing device via a cable. For example, PlayStation VR to the console. Because tethered devices are plugged into strong computing units, all the video processing happens there, offering complex and highly immersive VR experiences.

On the downside, the cable-based connection to the computing unit can be cumbersome.

Standalone

Standalone VR headsets pack the necessary CPU, GPU, and memory inside the headset, removing the need for a cable-based connection. Freedom, alas. 

In the relatively recent past, standalone headsets didn’t have enough computing power to create high-quality and complex VR experiences. This has changed somewhat with the release of Oculus Quest 2.

Oculus Quest 2. Source: Amazon


But there are technical limitations to the level of computing capabilities that can be integrated into a standalone VR headset, so Oculus Quest 2 still doesn’t deliver the same level of detail as tethered devices. But Quest 2 does bring some nicely detailed graphics.

Mobile VR

Mobile VR relies on your smartphone to view the content. You simply put your phone into a special headset with lenses that split your view into two separate frames.

Google Cardboard. Source: Google


The benefit of mobile VR is its significantly lower cost compared to standalone and tethered headsets. Mobile VR headsets cost from $5 up.

The drawback of mobile VR is that this technology offers very limited capabilities in terms of movement recognition. But you can purchase additional equipment for that, e.g., movement sensors or remote controllers. And there’s also the inferior image quality compared to VR headsets.

In short, mobile VR doesn’t offer nearly as much immersion as tethered or standalone VR headsets, but it nevertheless lets users experience VR.

Examples of Virtual Reality Apps

Even though VR is mostly associated with gaming and entertainment, this technology is being embraced by other industries in the form of VR apps.


What is Augmented Reality?

Augmented reality (AR) projects simulated elements into the real-world environment. This information can be graphics, animations, videos, tables, and 3D-models. 

How Augmented Reality Works?

There are basically two main types of AR solutions. 

Marker-Based

Marker-based augmented reality needs triggers to display content. For example, a physical object, such as a book or toy, to render a 3D interactive model in the place of that object. This technology uses image-recognition algorithms to display a 3D object in the correct position.

Markerless

Markerless augmented reality doesn’t depend on trigger objects to initiate a rendering. Instead, markerless AR needs to recognize the location in which the user is to then display content.

Whereas marker-based AR relies on image recognition to insert 3D models into images, markerless AR obtains an object’s location info directly from the camera.

On the hardware side of things, this is done via an accelerometer, RGB camera, and gyroscope. This way, markerless AR can “feel” the space it operates in. This is called Simultaneous Localization And Mapping (SLAM). The majority of today’s AR experiences use SLAM, but markerless AR can also be as simple as a superimposition of objects onto an image.

Also, many types of markerless AR apps use GPS to accurately place rendered objects in an environment (outdoor AR).

Just as there are many types of AR, there are also many devices that can use a variation of this technology:

HUD

A heads-up display is a layering of content on a surface to simulate a holographic image. A HUD can be used in cars for a more immersive and convenient driving experience.

AR HUD by Volkswagen. Source: Volkswagen UK

Smartglasses & AR Glasses

Smartglasses usually use HUD technology to project images onto one of the lenses. Most smartglasses are an extension of your mobile phone, capable of displaying information such as weather, navigation, messages, and information from companionable apps.

Strava connected to Vuzix Blade, feeding real-time information. Source: Vuzix Corporation

Facebook (Project Aria) and Apple are currently eagerly pursuing the technology to create AR glasses. However, the hardware necessary for a true AR experience — holograms instead of HUD as defined by Mark Zuckerberg — via normal-looking glasses is still at least a few years away.

AR Headsets

AR headsets, because of their larger size compared to glasses, can pack more powerful hardware and project holograms directly into the user’s vision.

AR headsets use advanced gesture and movement recognition systems to provide a more immersive and interactive experience.

HoloLens 2 used in healthcare. Source: Microsoft


Note: Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 and Magic Leap One are often described as augmented reality headsets, although the companies use the term mixed reality to describe the technology.

Mobile AR

Mobile AR is currently the most prominent and well-known take on AR. AR mobile apps inject computer-generated data into the real world to enhance it.

Ikea Place — furniture matching with AR. Source: Ikea


With mobile AR, we also have a new technology evolving rapidly — WebAR. In short, WebAR lets users enjoy AR experiences directly from the web browser on the mobile phone. This way, you don’t have to install an app for every individual AR experience — this functionality will be included.

iPad Pro 2020 uses Apple’s modified version of the LiDAR Scanner, which claims to enhance its space-recognition capabilities. We tested Apple’s version of LiDAR here.

Examples of Augmented Reality Apps

Augmented reality can be used in a variety of settings — e.g., business, healthcare, education, and entertainment.

Leveraging Cross-Reality Tech

From a business perspective, currently the best bid is on AR via mobile apps. Lots of people have a mobile phone, which significantly increases potential use cases in a variety of business settings. Most importantly, AR (i.e., mobile AR) doesn’t require the use of sophisticated and often expensive hardware seen in VR.

Both VR and AR, however, can help businesses connect with customers and offer them immersive experiences. Employees can enjoy cross-reality collaboration options and improved learning capabilities. As we watch these technologies evolve, there’s doubtless plenty of disruption to be observed.

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