What Are Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Mixed Reality, and Extended Reality?

Part of Virtual & Augmented Reality For Dummies Cheat Sheet

If you’ve been paying attention to the tech world recently, you’ve likely heard a number of new terms being thrown around — virtual reality, augmented reality, extended reality, and mixed reality — and you may have wondered what they mean. To help make sense of it all, here’s a breakdown of each of those terms, how they’re alike, and how they’re different.

  • Virtual reality (VR): A computer-simulated reality that simulates a fully artificial environment that does not physically exist. Users within VR are closed off from the real world. Consumer VR executions typically consist of a headset and some sort of controller.
  • Augmented reality (AR): A way of viewing the real world in which your view of the real world is “augmented” by computer-generated input, such as still images, audio, or video. AR differs from VR in that AR augments (adds to) a real-world scene, instead of creating something from scratch. AR headsets aren’t quite commonplace yet, but you may have an AR device in your pocket: Newer generations of both iOS and Android devices have been enabled with AR capabilities.
  • Mixed reality (MR): MR may take your view of the real world and integrate computer-generated content that can interact with that view of the real world. Or it may take a fully digital environment and connect it to real-world objects. In this way, MR can sometimes function similarly to VR and sometimes function similarly to AR. You’ll often hear the terms being used interchangeably, which can be confusing. Here’s a quick glance at the differences.

In MR, you may have a view of the real world, and a digital basketball may appear to bounce off the real world floor and walls, or a digital rocket ship may appear to land on your coffee table. This is AR-based MR, and you’ll often just hear these experiences referred to as AR.

In other MR instances, you may only see a completely digital environment with no view of the real world, but that digital environment is connected to real-world objects around you. In your virtual world, real-world tables or chairs may digitally appear as rocks or trees. Real-world office walls may appear as moss-covered cave walls. This is VR-based MR, sometimes called augmented virtuality.

Mixed reality is gaining traction in the industry, especially AR-based mixed reality. Remember that it is not uncommon for the terms augmented reality and mixed reality to be used synonymously.

  • Extended reality (XR): The umbrella term used for all these technologies. It can cover everything from VR to MR to AR technologies. People sometimes use the term virtual reality to refer to all of the above, but the correct umbrella term is extended reality.