Virtual Reality, Mixed Reality, Augmented Reality: What’s The Difference?
The first thing to note, before we get going with this, is that virtual and mixed reality are quite different. Positioning them against each other in some sort of technological ‘celebrity death match’ is not, therefore, the purpose of this post. It’s more about clearing up any confusion as to the differences.
Jason Chen, Chairman of Acer, has stated that he anticipates the mixed reality market will reach annual sales of 10 million units within the next five years. Chen’s confidence in the technology may explain the company’s early investment in mixed reality, with Acer’s Mixed Reality Head-Mounted Display (HMD) already on pre-order.
Microsoft has already debuted its Windows Mixed Reality development kits, a follow-up to their highly rated Hololens. ‘Follow-up’ may not be the right word. Microsoft insists that the new hardware is an alternative to the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive (both VR headsets) but is not a VR headset. Confused yet?
Microsoft Confuses Everyone
Alex Kipman, inventor of the Hololens, states that the terms virtual and augmented reality are obsolete. As Kipman told the audience at Microsoft Build 2017:
“These are not separate concepts. These are just labels for different points on the mixed reality continuum. This is why, to simplify things, we call all of it ‘Windows Mixed Reality.’”
This tweet containing a snippet of Kipman’s talk is an interesting insight into where Microsoft is going with MR:
— Windows Developer (@windowsdev) 11 May 2017
It’s probably prudent to move away from Microsoft for the purposes of this post, actually. It seems that the company is staking a claim within the space in a way that’s really confusing the issue. Are we really ready to blur the lines with these different technologies at such an early stage? It’s hard to tell.
So, bye, Microsoft! What does the rest of the tech world say?
Beyond Microsoft’s plan to make everyone feel incredibly stupid, there are widely recognised definitions of virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality. This is the bit that will help untangle the confusion… hopefully.
Virtual reality: Largely a computer-simulated reality that replicates a real-world environment or a completely imaginary world. The user can interact with that world but what they are seeing doesn’t exist (in the traditional sense). The technology can be loosely split into 360-degree video footage (real-world) and CGVR (computer-generated virtual reality) for which all the imagery is created using CGI software. CGVR and 360-degree video, it must be noted, are not mutually exclusive, but are oft combined, which has resulted in some of the best VR content created to date.
Some like to interpret VR as an umbrella term to encompass all immersive experiences.
Augmented reality: The real-world view is overlaid with computer-generated elements, such as imagery, video, and/or sound. The computer-generated imagery you see in AR is not anchored to the real world, so it cannot really interact with real surroundings. It merely sits on top of the real world view. Pokemon Go is the obvious example. You can kick a Pikachu with your foot but it won’t fall over. It’ll stay where it is until you shoot an AR Pokeball at it.
Mixed reality: This is the one that gets everyone in a tiz. With mixed reality, the real and virtual worlds are merged to create new environments – a hybrid reality, if you will. Virtual/digital objects interact with the real-world environment and the objects within it. This doesn’t mean that a vase will fall over if a digital elf pushes it, of course. It means that you can, for example, poke the elf in the face and it will react. It is mixed reality that is used by surgeons overlaying digital ultrasound images over their patient whilst operating.
In the midst of their mission to confuse us, Microsoft has brought in the term “holographic computing” which may or may not refer to mixed reality. Whatever. Moving swiftly on…
It was probably high time we all had a few paragraphs like this to refer to, so we hope it’s useful. What it does clear up is that all-important difference between AR and MR, and helps us understand that it’s probably mixed reality that has more staying power than AR, despite the latter getting all the attention at the moment.
But what do you think? Drop us a tweet and let us know your interpretation of mixed and augmented realities, and even VR if you’ve got a novel view on it.