Virtual & Augmented Reality For Dummies
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The terms virtual reality and augmented reality (and others, like mixed reality and extended reality) are thrown about everywhere today, but do you really know what they mean? Virtual and augmented reality are rapidly changing fields, so it helps to know where they are today and where they may be headed in the future. Finally, seeing how virtual and augmented reality are being used in a variety of industries and how exactly you can experience these technologies is key to your enjoyment.

What are virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality, and extended reality?

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.

The current state of virtual and augmented reality

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have some similar core technologies but differ in a number of ways. These differences have likely contributed to their current state of technological maturity.

Neither technology has advanced far enough to be considered “mature,” but VR has made large strides over the past few years. VR has seen the release of a large number of headsets for mass consumption, from low-cost devices powered by users’ mobile devices to high-end headsets that require a large amount of external computing power. VR has reached a decent consumer install base, VR consumer software is easy to come by, and we’re rapidly approaching what could be considered the second generation of consumer-based VR headsets.

AR, on the other hand, is still fairly new technology. AR headsets exist, but they are all fairly expensive, are limited in number, and generally focus on release for developers or enterprise rather than for mass consumption. VR’s form factor appears to be generally set, but how AR will be experienced isn’t quite settled yet.

AR does have a unique option: Both Apple and Google have released technologies (ARKit and ARCore, respectively) that allow consumers to experience smaller, mobile-device AR experiences. These technologies allow users to view the real world via their mobile-device cameras and augment those cameras’ video with digital holograms. Device restrictions such as the small video window and having to hold the device make mobile-based AR a less than optimal experience, but it’s a good introduction for most users as to just what AR is.

Consuming virtual and augmented reality

Options for consuming content are readily available for virtual reality (VR). VR devices cover a spectrum from high-end options to low-end options to everything in between, with more devices being released every day.

High-end consumption devices for VR include headsets such as the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift, or Windows Mixed Reality headsets. These options all require powerful external hardware to power the headset experience and include options such as a “room-scale” experience, or the ability to move around in physical space and have that movement translated into the virtual environment. Midrange options for VR consumption include headsets such as the Samsung Gear VR or Google Daydream. These VR headsets are powered by higher-end mobile devices. They allow users to look around in VR, but not physically move about as if a user were there. Google Cardboard is an example of a low-end VR device. Released as a low-cost way of democratizing VR, almost any reasonably powerful mobile device can run the Google Cardboard software. Unlike the midrange VR options, user input in Google Cardboard devices is extremely limited.

Augmented reality (AR) devices such as headsets or goggles remain beyond most consumer budgets for now. High-end AR devices such as the Microsoft HoloLens, the Meta 2, or the upcoming Magic Leap One are targeted toward enterprise customers or developers only. We’re likely a generation or two of AR devices away before we can expect to see AR headsets released to consumers, though you may encounter some devices being utilized in commercial settings. There are also a few potential “midrange” AR headsets such as the Mira Prism that are powered by users’ mobile devices. These headsets are currently targeted toward developers but may see release to consumers in the near future.

Many consumers can experience a lower-end AR experience right now, however. Newer iOS and Android mobile devices come equipped with AR capabilities. Simply searching either the Apple App Store or Google Play Store for “ARKit” or “ARCore,” respectively, will reveal a large number of applications built specifically for AR experiences on mobile devices. For example, the New York Times mobile app allows users to browse news stories featuring augmented content, and Amazon’s ARView allows users to place digital holograms in their physical spaces and walk around them as if they were truly there.

Virtual and augmented reality use cases

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have a large number of use cases spread across any number of industries. VR lends itself readily to the entertainment industry.

VR has very strong roots in gaming. Gamers tend to be early technology adopters. Plus, they often have the powerful computer systems needed to run the highest-end VR headsets. But VR is not limited to gaming and entertainment. VR has made inroads into the education market. Classrooms have utilized VR applications such as Google Expeditions to facilitate virtual field trips or applications such as Clouds Over Sidra to educate on events as far ranging as the Syrian refugee crisis. VR has found inroads in the art world as a tool to create and educate, the healthcare industry to train surgeons and treat psychological issues, and the retail industry to advertise and shop in new ways. Name an industry, and VR likely has an applicable use case.

AR is similar, though the maturity level of the technology means consumer use cases are a bit fewer and further between as AR focuses on enterprise-level executions. These enterprise-level executions cover a gamut of uses:

  • Industrial applications for training workers on the factory floor for steps to utilize equipment or display via digital holograms where to find various parts in a physical warehouse
  • Entertainment applications where users battle digital holograms projected into real-world space
  • Utility applications for connecting users and allowing them to work in a shared virtual 3D space projected into a real-world environment

That’s not to say consumers are left out in the cold. Apple’s and Google’s release of ARKit and ARCore, respectively, mean mobile executions for retail (such as Ikea’s Place app, which allows you to preview full-size digital holograms of Ikea furniture) and utility applications such as Google Translate (which can translate images of more than 30 different languages on the fly through your mobile device’s camera) can be utilized by anyone with a supported mobile device.

The future of virtual and augmented reality

The future of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) looks to be an interesting one. Although both VR and AR have been utilized in small doses in various industries in the past, both have experienced a resurgence in interest both publicly and within commercial industries in the past few years. VR rose to public prominence with the Kickstarter release of the Oculus Development Kit 1 in 2013, and AR saw a large boost with the announced releases of ARKit and ARCore in late 2017.

VR is further ahead in its product development life cycle than AR. It has seen hardware releases directly to the mass consumer market, and many headset manufacturers have released their plans for the second generation of VR devices. The first generation of VR devices, especially the high-end devices, have been lauded by critics and consumers for the level of immersive experience they can provide. However, adoption by consumers was focused far more on the lower-end VR devices, due in part to high costs and the newness of the technology. That has yet to dull manufacturers’ push for VR adoption. At the Oculus Connect conference in October 2017, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, “We’re setting a goal: We want to get a billion people in virtual reality.” A lofty goal. Only time will tell if such a goal is truly attainable, but many experts see VR as having the potential to hit mass adoption levels within the next two to five years.

AR is trending behind VR. The technological challenges of augmenting real-world environments are many: realistic digital display, comfortable wearable computing power, world-sensing technology, and so on. And AR needs to be able to handle all these potential speed bumps at a price attainable for consumers in order to hit mass adoption numbers. But like VR, AR has its share of advocates in high places. “We believe augmented reality is going to change the way we use technology forever,” claimed Apple CEO Tim Cook in a 2017 call with analysts. “We’re already seeing things that will transform the way you work, play, connect, and learn. Augmented reality is going to change everything.”

With the challenges AR faces, technology research predictions put AR’s adoption level further out than that of VR. Most analysts see AR’s mainstream adoption somewhere between five to ten years out. In the meantime, however, many expect to see AR make large inroads into enterprise sectors such as industrial and commercial industries, where utilizing AR promises to save industries time and money by minimizing costly errors and mistakes.

No one knows for sure just how big the VR and AR markets will be, but many research firms predict a combined market cap of up to $150 billion for VR and AR by 2021, potentially with AR leading the way — an interesting development for a technology that started “behind” VR.

No one can predict just how explosive growth for VR and AR will be, but the future of both these technologies appears promising.

About This Article

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About the book author:

Paul Mealy has worked with virtual reality since the release of the Oculus Rift DK1 in 2013. He has architected, designed and developed applications for Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR, Windows Mixed Reality, Google Daydream, and Google Cardboard. He has worked with numerous augmented reality hardware and technologies including the Microsoft HoloLens, ARKit for iOS, ARCore for Android and cross-platform solutions such as Vuforia.

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