Virtual Reality vs Augmented Reality vs Mixed Reality

What’s the difference?

There's still a lot of confusion around XR. In this guide, we explain everything you need to know.

The virtuality continuum is a spectrum that explains how real and virtual worlds can be combined in different ways, and to different extents. Virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR) are all terms used to describe how the real and virtual can be amalgamated. But, while they’re often mistaken for one another and used interchangeably, there are some key differences in what they mean. Here, we’re going to clearly define each one, and also explain how they differ from one another. This should help to quell some of the confusion surrounding the terms and ensure that you’re always able to work out exactly what kind of technology or technique you need to use for a certain project.

User Operating A Mixed Reality Headset

What is virtual reality?

“Virtual reality” tends to involve more of the virtual than the real, as the name suggests. The term describes a three-dimensional, computer-generated environment that a person can explore and interact with. There are a range of systems that can be used to achieve a sense of virtual reality, from headsets, to headphones, gloves, and even omni-directional treadmills.
It’s the most immersive type of reality technology and essentially makes it possible to experience anything, anywhere, at any time by convincing the human brain that it’s somewhere else. But, there’s also a sliding scale of virtual reality made up of three different types:

Non-immersive simulations

The least immersive, as they only stimulate a subset of a user’s senses. This can allow for peripheral awareness of reality outside of the simulation. Users are able to enter into a three-dimensional virtual environment through a portal or window, which is usually a high-resolution screen or monitor.

Semi-immersive simulations

providing a more immersive experience, where the user is partly immersed in a virtual environment. These simulations tend to comprise of a relatively high-performance graphics computing system and a large screen monitor, large screen projector system, or multiple television screen projection systems. This technology can help users to feel like they’re in a different environment, but they’ll also be aware of the world outside of the simulation.

Full-immersive simulations

providing the most immersive version of virtual reality. This is where hardware such as head-mounted displays and motion-detecting devices are used to stimulate as many of a user’s senses as possible. This means someone using this technology will feel like they’re somewhere completely different to where they actually are.

There are a whole host of applications for virtual reality and, while gaming is perhaps the most well-known, the technology’s potential doesn’t end there. For example, both the UK and US military now use virtual reality as part of their training, because it allows members to be put in various situations that would be difficult or even impossible to safely replicate in real life. It’s also revolutionising the sports industry for both players and viewers, and has even been used in schools to take students on virtual trips.

Here at Luminous, we specialise in virtual reality training for commercial, enterprise, and industrial applications. You can learn more about this by reading our guide to the benefits of VR training in the workplace.

Visualization Tool Being Used on an iPad

What is augmented reality?

The difference between AR and VR is that the former is more about bringing the real and virtual together, rather than replacing one with the other. This is usually done by superimposing information — which might come in the form of sounds, images, or text — onto the world we already see.

This is usually achieved by adding a virtual overlay using a visual device such as a phone or tablet. For example, the app Pokémon GO offers an augmented reality experience, as you can use your smartphone to catch Pokémon that appear to pop up in front of you while you’re walking down the street or sitting at home. Your phone’s camera shows what you can actually see, and then a character is superimposed onto that.

There are plenty of other ways in which augmented reality is used, too. For example, if you’re watching a tennis grand-slam on TV and a line judge makes a controversial call, you might see an action replay with a computer animation that shows exactly where the ball bounced, so you can understand why the call might have been made. An official decision can then be made off the back of the replay.

Some retailers have apps that allow you to try things before you buy, too. So, for example, if you’re looking to buy a particular piece of furniture, you can superimpose it into your existing space using your smartphone or a tablet. This gives you an idea of how the furniture is going to fit, whether the colour will work with your current décor, and can show you whether you need to look at other styles. Because it looks like it’s being placed in your home, this is classed as augmented reality.

At Luminous Group, we use augmented reality to create specialist training programmes for companies in a range of different industries. Using this kind of technology in training has been shown to reinforce the learning experience, leading to better retention of knowledge and creating a safer workplace for everybody.

User Exploring Visual Headset Display

What is mixed reality?

Mixed reality is similar to augmented reality in that — as the name suggests — it offers a combination of the real and virtual, however it goes a step further by fusing physical and digital content together seamlessly, while maintaining a user’s presence in the real world.

With augmented reality, you can usually tell that a virtual overlay is being used to superimpose information or objects onto what you actually see. But, with mixed reality, it’s more subtle. This kind of technology can convincingly add 3D holographic objects into the real world, rather than onto it.

Essentially, the technology is able to make it appear like digital objects have been added to the physical world. These are then anchored in a specific location, which means they can be seen and treated as “real” — at least from the perspective of the person experiencing the simulation. With mixed reality, virtual objects hold their position so, when you lean towards them, they appear to get closer as a real-world object would. And this is primarily what makes the technology different to augmented reality.
Mixed reality has the potential to revolutionise business processes in much the same way as the desktop computer did in the past. It is bringing a new paradigm into computer technology and has huge productivity advantages for people such as designers, engineers, or first line and field workers.

It can be used in a range of ways, from sharing product designs to increasing remote and collaborative working, all through a heads-up, hands-free device.
At the moment, mixed reality is firmly aimed at the enterprise space, and the companies that are embracing it are seeing a huge improvement to service time from employees receiving mixed reality training, as well quality and efficiency enhancements.

However, as the technology becomes smaller and more cost effective, and more applications are becoming clear, it’s likely we’ll see mixed reality introduced into our lives more and more over the next decade and beyond.

We hope you now have a much clearer idea of what virtual, augmented, and mixed reality are. While these technologies are similar, they also differ in a lot of ways, and it’s important to know what these are.

Here at Luminous Group, we work in mixed reality development, and also offer a virtual and augmented reality training service. If you think these offerings could benefit your business in any way, or you’re simply interested in hearing more about our work, get in touch and we’ll be happy to discuss everything with you today. You can also browse more of the guides in our tech hub for information about the work we do.

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