VR and AR are the future of gaming, but what’s the difference?
Back in the humble beginnings of the art form in the early 70s, the most complex of video games involved two white rectangles bouncing a square “ball” back and forth. Today, we have games so immersive and in-depth that even the developers are not able to beat them. The industry, its products, and the tools we use to play it would be unrecognizable if you took them back in time to show them to gamers of yesteryear. But if emerging technologies are any indication, this evolution is far from over.
Two state-of-the-art technologies. Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR), which already exist in one form or another today, will most likely mark the next big leap forward in the world of gaming technology. They have already started to have impacting commerce, business, design, entertainment and more.
But what exactly is the difference? And where do they go from here?
What is Virtual Reality?
Virtual reality is basically when you completely replace the real world with a digital world.
The history of virtual reality actually dates back to 1960 – that’s when the very first VR head-mounted display, called the telesphere mask, was invented by a man called Morton L Heilig. Although quite crude by today’s standards, this headset offered stereoscopic 3D, wide vision and stereo sound, much like a 3D movie theater you might wear on your head. Although more complicated and advanced, most VR headsets today still operate on the same basic principles as this one.
Virtual reality is a bit like jumping into a video game, where putting on a headset (and usually interacting with space via some type of controller or remote) transports you to a world, domain, or universe entirely digital and completely, deliberately, obscures the real world in the process.
However, there are different ways to do it. Some VR headsets, like Google Daydream View, are not stand-alone devices. They rely on a smartphone to function as a display screen and use a Bluetooth remote control to interact with said phone screen. As VR technology advanced and more technically sophisticated devices became more readily available and affordable, these began to feel more and more primitive in comparison.
The best of both worlds, and what seems to be the dominant application of virtual reality, can be found in the latest generation of standalone VR headsets. Meta 2 Quest (formerly Oculus) is one such device, which has its own headset, remotes/controllers and requires no connected computer to operate and increasingly offers a functionally equivalent level of performance.
What are you doing in VR? The options run the gamut from Viewmaster’s core experiences like the Stranger Things Experience from a few years ago, to full-fledged video games with dozens of hours of content to play, like the RV port of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Either way, the experience must completely replace real reality (even temporarily) to qualify as virtual reality. If it feels a bit like 1999 The matrix for you, you’re right – this universe is a pretty good (if not quite enticing) analogy for what virtual reality is.
What is Augmented Reality?
Augmented reality is basically when you add a digital layer on top of the real world itself.
While virtual reality is completely immersive, augmented reality has probably crept into your life somehow without you even realizing it – it’s much more subtle and, at this point, has more real-world applications. If you have already played Pokemon Go, for example, it is AR. If you’ve ever tried a virtual furniture app to see what a new piece, like a sofa, looks like in your living room (IKEA, Target, and Wayfair all have one), it is AR. If you’ve used an app to try on sneakers or clothes virtually, it’s AR. If you’ve downloaded an app to show you the constellations in the night sky, it’s AR. The list is lengthened increasingly.
Practically, augmented reality is looking at reality through a gadget with a screen and a camera – at this point, usually a phone – that makes it look like something digital exists in that actual physical space. .
Current mainstream applications of this technology tend to oscillate between entertainment and commerce, there are many other commercial applications where AR is incredibly useful. Ford, for example, started use AR technology to help design cars in the mid-2010s with Microsoft’s HoloLens. Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar Range Rover and many others have also used versions of the technology. And that’s just the automotive industry, a mere pin among the many varied industries using augmented reality technology at present. Same Disneyland uses AR technology for some of its latest and greatest attractions, like Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure (and he has future plans for its own patented AR without glasses). As you can see, even if you were unaware of this technology, how it works, and its many uses, you’ve probably still interacted with it to some degree.
What is the difference between virtual reality and augmented reality?
As we’ve established, the main difference is whether you completely replace the real world (VR) or add a digital layer on top of it (AR)
However, there are additional differences that flow from this distinction. Since VR is about fully virtual three-dimensional spaces, you must wear a helmet of a kind to block out the real world. And because you can’t see where you’re going, or your real human hands, it requires some sort of control device to move and harness your digital self. And while building and rendering virtual worlds is computationally intense, it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of computational power to play them, if enough of that computational work has been done in advance or at distance.
Augmented reality, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily require a head-mounted display or controller, as you can still see the real world, walk around in it, and use your hands. However, it requires some kind of camera to take the real world as input and considerable processing power to map a digital reality on top of it.
Virtual reality is like a fake universe you jump into and augmented reality is like putting fake things in the real world.
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