Virtual Reality versus Augmented Reality?

by Todd Richmond, IEEE

Senior IEEE member Todd Richmond
Author: Senior IEEE member Todd Richmond

Although virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have existed in some form for decades, only recently have they garnered mainstream attention.

There are 3 different “realities” to the world. First is physical reality. That is what we’re born into – the natural world. There is no pause button, the laws of physics are obeyed, things have mass, etc. Then there is augmented reality. In that case, digital objects/information enters your physical world – but you still maintain contact with the physical world with your senses. Typically the information would be displayed on goggles/glasses, projection, or some other means. Virtual reality is when you give up one or more of your senses to a digital/synthetic world. Right now that is done via head mount display, and you can’t see your real-time physical world. To me it doesn’t matter how the content was created – 360 video or game engine – it is whether or not you have lost contact with your physical world with one or more of your senses (usually visual).

Perspective from a consumer point of view

When someone asks which one is more suited and better for the consumers between AR, VR, I would say that both have different strengths and weaknesses. AR is good for providing more information about the world around you, or bringing some sort of synthetic experience to your space. In the workplace AR will have a lot of applications. You can get more information based on your location or the task you’re performing. VR for the near-term will be more for entertainment (games, “movies”, etc), but it already has applications in health care and other fields. We’ve been using VR experiences to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in returning soldiers, and for stroke rehabilitation and physical therapy. VR will likely see significant further use in healthcare (for pain treatment, patient information, physician training), education, and pretty much every other field.

AR and VR are “immersive mediums”. And like other communication/collaboration/experiential mediums (radio, tv/film, mobile), they will impact all aspects of society. The danger is that like any technology, it can be used for positive outcomes (healthcare, education, training) or for profits (the ultimate advertising platforms).

Virtual and Augmented Reality working together

It is not always virtual reality vs. augmented reality– they do not always operate independently of one another, and in fact are often blended together to generate an even more immersing experience which we refer to as “mixed reality” (MxR). For example, haptic feedback-which is the vibration and sensation added to interaction with graphics-is considered an augmentation. However, it is commonly used within a virtual reality setting in order to make the experience more lifelike though touch. These systems can be combined with real-world objects and environments to create compelling hybrid mixed realities.

Virtual reality and augmented reality are good examples of experiences and interactions fueled by the want to become immersed in a simulated land for entertainment, or to add a new dimension of interaction between digital devices and the real world. Alone or blended together, they are certainly opening up worlds-both real and virtual alike.

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