Virtual Reality vs. Augmented Reality: Strengths and Weaknesses

By Paul Mealy

Virtual reality fully immerses users in the content, creating new experiences and environments, and more than any technology to date, encouraging users to have empathy for new people and situations. Augmented reality’s strengths dovetail with many of virtual reality’s weaknesses. The nature of augmented reality and its access to the real world make it a perfect candidate for applications that require real-world interaction with other users or objects.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has claimed that he expects augmented reality to be bigger than virtual reality for that very reason. In an interview with ABC News in 2016, Cook said “Virtual reality sort of encloses and immerses the person into an experience that can be really cool, but probably has a lower commercial interest over time. Less people will be interested in that.”

Whether Cook’s bullish take on the commercial interest augmented reality will prove correct remains to be seen, but his take on the different strengths of virtual reality and augmented reality is on the money.

Strengths of virtual reality

Virtual reality technology provides these benefits:

  • Complete immersion: Due to the closed-off nature of current virtual reality executions, users will be fully focused on the content of your application, undistracted by email, phone messages, or any other outside events. This complete immersion is perfect for apps that need a user’s undivided attention, such as videos, storytelling, gaming, and educational applications.
  • Transporting the user: Virtual reality can do just what its name implies — create a virtual environment that feels like reality to the end user. A user in an augmented reality app is generally still aware of his current real-world surroundings, but a user in virtual reality can be completely unaware of his surroundings. Sharing a small, one-bedroom apartment in New York with five friends? Strap on a virtual reality headset and you can feel as if you live in a vast mansion. Flying on a transatlantic flight in cramped coach seating? Put on a virtual reality headset and you’ll feel like you’re in your own empty movie theater, viewing content on a 70-foot screen.
  • Creating empathy: Virtual reality can place users in situations they never would’ve imagined, including in the shoes of others. This ability to create a shared experience between users is unique to virtual reality and one of its greatest strengths.
  • Technological maturation: Virtual reality as a technology has been on the rise since the introduction of consumer-grade virtual reality with the Oculus Rift DK1 in 2013. Many of the big names in tech, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Samsung, have released one or more virtual reality headsets and have plans to release more. Augmented reality interest has seen an uptick with the introduction of ARKit from Apple and ARCore from Google, but virtual reality still leads in this category for consumer devices.

Weaknesses of virtual reality

As compelling as its benefits are, virtual reality isn’t a perfect platform on which to execute your project. Here are some of its drawbacks:

  • Limited interaction with the outside world: Users in virtual reality are completely closed off from the rest of the world, which can be impractical for certain types of projects. It isn’t uncommon for users in room-scale virtual reality to need a fairly open space for their experience. Otherwise, they run the danger of knocking into other people or objects.
  • Lack of strong social interaction: The experiences offered by virtual reality can be incredible, but they also can seem isolating. The environments virtual reality can create feel so real that users expect the social interactions to be realistic, too. However, the technology for making social interactivity in virtual reality seem real isn’t quite there yet. The lack of eye contact and the inability to see a user’s true facial expression in most social virtual reality apps can leave the social experience of virtual reality wallowing in the awkward uncanny valley between no social interaction and true personal connection.

Companies such as Facebook, Sansar, and Pluto are all working on their own visions of social interaction and personal connection in the future virtual reality space, but it’s still early days for this technology. Defining the social experience will be a big problem to solve in the next few years for both virtual reality and augmented reality.

Facebook Spaces Virtual Reality
Users’ avatars interact in Facebook Spaces.

The image above shows a screen shot of users interacting via their virtual avatars in Facebook’s social virtual reality app, Facebook Spaces.

  • Cost and hardware: Some applications can be run both inside and outside a headset, such as YouTube’s 360 videos. However, without the headset you’ve effectively removed the “reality” from virtual reality and you’re just looking at another 2D application. Regardless of the flavor of virtual reality you choose, users need some sort of hardware to truly experience your application as virtual reality. Low-cost hardware such as Google Cardboard is widely available, but it can’t support high-performance virtual reality applications. For higher-end virtual reality experiences, the cost of the virtual reality hardware (and the computer to run these experiences) can be enough of a barrier that even those with a strong interest in virtual reality may be put off until the price comes down or, perhaps worse, experience a lower-end virtual reality experience and think that’s all virtual reality has to offer.
  • Not a frictionless experience: In marketing terminology, a frictionless experience is one that doesn’t require a consumer to go through any extra trouble to use. As it currently stands, virtual reality technology is far from frictionless. Many virtual reality experiences (especially on the higher end) require a specific location for your virtual reality setup consisting of plenty of room to move about in real-world space and powerful external hardware for running virtual reality. All this can lead to users being less likely to use their virtual reality setup, if only due to the friction of having to set aside a time and place to get their virtual reality fix. The second generation of headsets, featuring inside-out tracking and often fully self-contained, tetherless headsets, will hopefully take steps toward making the virtual reality experience more frictionless.
  • Mass market share: Although virtual reality is making strides to gain widespread consumer adoption, it hasn’t achieved critical mass yet at the same level as the computer or the mobile phone. So far, virtual reality headsets, especially high-end headsets, have still been mainly a plaything of early adopters. Facebook and Google both hope to improve this even further by releasing affordable, midrange second-generation headsets in 2018. However, if massive user adoption at the level of, say, mobile devices, is a requirement for your project or product, keep in mind that you probably won’t get it with current virtual reality execution.

Strengths of augmented reality

Here are some of the benefits that augmented reality offers:

  • Social and real-world interaction: The ability to interact with people or objects in the real world is the core concept of augmented reality. Augmenting the real world with digital artifacts expands on what the real world can do. And because augmented reality doesn’t close the user off from the rest of the world, it can more readily be used socially. When using an augmented reality headset, glasses, or a mobile device, a user isn’t closed off from the world, which allows for much smoother social interaction with those around you. After the release of the augmented reality game Pokémon GO for Android and iOS, it wasn’t uncommon to come across strangers in the real world exchanging notes on digital artifacts such as Pokémon and gym locations. This merging of the real and the virtual is precisely the area in which augmented reality excels.
  • Mostly frictionless: Due in part to augmented reality’s openness to the real world, experiencing augmented reality can be more frictionless to use than virtual reality, especially the lower-end, mobile executions. Because current augmented reality experiences don’t close the user off from the real world, it can feel nearly as frictionless as opening an app on a mobile device, which is already familiar for millions of users. The higher-end experiences such as Meta 2 and HoloLens can require a bit more investment of a user’s time and may require a specific location (because Meta 2 is tethered to a computer). Overall however, augmented reality experiences seem to generate less friction for a user than most current virtual reality experiences.
  • Limited extra hardware required for mobile executions: With the mobile versions of Google’s ARCore and Apple’s ARKit, millions of users are walking around with an augmented reality-capable device in their pockets. The augmented reality executions these technologies allow are fairly simple, but they open up a massive user base of potential consumers for your application.

Weaknesses of augmented reality

Augmented reality has its drawbacks in addition to its benefits. Here’s a quick look at them:

  • Technological maturation: Even with Google and Apple pushing augmented reality capability to the forefront with their mobile releases, augmented reality is still far behind virtual reality in terms of technological maturity. This lack of technical maturity can reveal itself through a number of other deficiencies (for example, device access, lack of content, potential unknowns, and so on).
  • Mass market share: Outside of mobile augmented reality, the consumer market for augmented reality devices is virtually nonexistent. Only a handful of companies currently are producing devices at close to consumer scale, and none of these devices is currently marketed toward consumers, only toward developers, businesses, and enterprise.
  • Device access: Augmented reality has only a handful of companies competing in the low-, mid-, and high-end price ranges, with most of those augmented reality devices still in beta or targeted toward enterprise and not consumers directly. Most users won’t have access to an augmented reality device (outside of mobile augmented reality) for some time. For some projects, this may not be an issue. You may be able to control and provide access to hardware as the project requires. For a great many projects, however, this could be a nonstarter.

    Carefully consider device access for your next project. If you’re planning on developing for augmented reality and the mobile form factor works for you, great — you’re all set! If the mobile form factor doesn’t fit your project requirements, you’ll be extremely limited in the market for which you can currently develop.

  • Lack of content: Augmented reality is still in its very early stages. There is a noticeable lack of content, especially high-end content, for users to experience. This lack of content goes hand-in-hand with augmented reality’s technical maturation and device access. As augmented reality matures technically and as content creators begin to get their hands on augmented reality devices, more and better content will begin to roll out much as it has for virtual reality. However, we have yet to reach that point. It will likely take a mass consumer release of an augmented reality device to truly jumpstart the content creation race.
  • Limited immersion: Augmented reality’s strength can also be a weakness, especially augmented reality within the mobile device form factor. The fundamental basis of augmented reality is rooted in the ability to interact with the real world. That offers many benefits, but at the cost of potential interruptions to the users’ experience. If your project will require any sort of fully realized artificial reality, or require a user to stay fully immersed within your reality without distraction, augmented reality probably isn’t the choice for you.
  • The unknown: The relative immaturity of augmented reality comes at a price of the unknown. Virtual reality is still be in its infancy as a technology as well, but there is a generally agreed-upon road map pointing to where things seem to be headed. It’s still possible for a startup to come along and shake up the virtual reality industry with a new hardware/software, but the general direction virtual reality is headed is seemingly established.

Augmented reality hasn’t reached that state of predictability yet. Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore, while not entirely unexpected for industry insiders, were surprises for the consumer market. Apple’s AR Glasses are still an unknown, and Magic Leap’s entry into the augmented reality space is in early stages. These products or others could completely change the augmented reality road map.

Currently, developing a project for augmented reality requires embracing the unknown, and building your project accordingly. Some companies can align with these tenets, while others may be uncomfortable with the ever-changing landscape and be better off finding a different execution for their projects until the unknown becomes more, well, known.