You may not know it, but if you’ve played Pokemon Go then you’ve entered “augmented reality”. Sounds exotic. But wait a minute – isn’t there also “virtual reality”? What’s the difference?
AR/VR: What’s the difference?
Good question. The answer is actually pretty simple. Simply put, VR is based on content, whereas AR is based on the real world.
You can think of it this way: VR takes you out of this world and into a completely different (i.e. virtual) reality. AR, on the other hand, changes (i.e. augments or adds to) existing reality. VR is immersive; AR is supplementary.
Pokemon Go layers the Poke universe onto reality through your smartphone – it supplements reality; it augments it. Kind of like what Google Glass tried (and admittedly failed) to do. Putting on a headset and playing a game from your couch takes you out of our world, which is what a VR headset like the Oculus Rift does.
AR/VR: Who cares?
The differences between the two are crucial.
Because VR is restricted to content, it’ll probably end up being mostly focused on narrative. Video games – you’re playing in a universe, you’re participating in an experience that precludes any distraction from or interaction with the outside world. Movies – you’re “watching” (probably more like “living”) in a universe. Traveling – you’re exploring in an actual place that is divorced from your present physical reality. News – you’re engaging with current events and stories in what feels like “real times. The New York Times has already introduced a VR news platform, NYT VR.
But because AR only interacts with reality and adds layers to the existing world, there’s no telling what, exactly, AR applications will focus on. As Apple CEO Tim Cook himself put it:
My own view is that augmented reality is the larger of the two, probably by far, because this gives the capability for both of us to sit and be very present talking to each other, but also have other things visually for both of us to see. Maybe it’s something we’re talking about, maybe it’s someone else here that is not here, present, but could be made to appear to be present with us. So there’s a lot of really cool things there.
What Cook is basically saying is: the potential applications for AR are almost limitless, because AR doesn’t stop us from doing many different things while using AR. Ideally, AR would enhance our experience of reality in some way, not take us out of it. AR is an active take on technology’s interaction with the world. VR, even in a gaming environment, is passive – it shuts down reality. You can’t interact with the world when you’re not in it to some degree.
That being said, with the exception of “gamification” applications of AR like Pokemon Go, the technology has been slow to get off the ground. Sure, the applications are limitless in theory – but what can I use it for right now other than playing video games ? The answer to that question is still being worked out.
And there are other worries about AR, such as safety. We’ve all heard about the pitfalls of using Pokemon Go. Privacy, too, is a concern: Google Glass got a lot of bad press because of its ability to video tape human interactions, often without consent.
Both AR and VR are still fairly nascent technologies. Content for VR and applications for AR are both somewhat limited. But that doesn’t mean you can’t start using one or both today. There are a number of cool apps out there and amazing headset technologies to choose from. It’s only a matter of time before this technology takes off in a big way. To get started, check out our guides to digital headsets and VR headsets you can use with your iPhone.