AR vs. VR: Choose Your New Reality
Updated: May 25,2022
What is the future of gaming? If you ask enthusiasts, they’ll tell you it’s either virtual reality or augmented reality. In any case, it’s a world immeasurably more exciting than our old, boring one. That being said, the AR vs. VR debate continues to rage even with so many years and generations of technology behind us. Which one is better? Do they have other applications except for pure entertainment? Do you still need to pay through the nose to get a headset?
Here, we’ll try to answer all the burning questions about these technologies. The fact is, they’re both exciting and useful in their own way and can complement each other. But let’s start with the basics.
What is AR?
Augmented reality, or AR for short, is a concept older than the internet. Hence why the VR vs. AR debate has been going on for quite some time. AR technology is about overlaying a virtual image over the actual video feed, sort of like an additional UI for the real world. To accomplish this, the user will need either AR lenses, sometimes called smart glass, or a mobile device equipped with a camera. Then, it’s just a matter of pointing the camera toward the AR-enabled location and activating one of the AR apps. Depending on the app, the user will either need to point to a specific target or walk freely while the app overlays images over their camera’s feed.
Before we jump to the augmented reality vs. virtual reality comparison, we should mention certain limitations of AR tech. Obviously, it’s limited to the size of the screen you’re using. If you wish to experience augmented reality on a smartphone, you’d better grab a phone with a big screen. It’s a bit better with smart glasses, but there’s no denying that AR is more of a passive experience. Only certain apps and augmented reality games like Pokemon GO have introduced some level of interactivity with the AR world, with certain games on the horizon promising significant improvements in this field.
What is VR?
Virtual reality is all about total immersion and simulation. As the name suggests, the user is presented with a completely virtual world, with simulated sights and sounds. As you observe virtual reality through a headset, your view of the actual world is obscured. Again, immersion is the key. Depending on the hardware, the user’s movement can be tracked across the room, or in a fixed position (standing or sitting), with optional peripherals designed to make interactions with the virtual world possible. Some of the newer VR headsets, like Oculus Quest 2, allow for hand gestures and don’t require controllers, bringing the immersion up a notch.
A virtual reality headset is a prerequisite to entering VR. It includes screens and specialized VR lenses curved in such a way as to fill out the user’s field of vision. A lot of these headsets have headphones or a headphone jack. Originally, a VR setup required a PC to process all the graphics and movement data, but nowadays, there are stand-alone, wireless headsets. Thanks to efforts by companies like Oculus and Samsung, it’s slowly becoming mainstream and losing the status of an expensive, enthusiast-only system. Still, an advanced VR headset is a $1,000 investment on top of purchasing a beefy graphics card to process all that 3D data.
What is MR?
There’s an additional, third level of artificial reality, which has gained traction in recent years. Mixed reality, the merging of virtual and physical worlds into a single simulation, is the most advanced of the three. Although it’s sometimes used as a synonym for AR, due to showing both realities, the primary difference is that it allows for physical interaction in virtual reality. On the basic level, MR can be a combined rendering of a VR gamer on green screen background, with the actual game they’re playing rendered on top. That way, you’re not seeing just what the player is seeing but get the impression you’re in the VR next to them.
The augmented reality vs. virtual reality vs. mixed reality comparison is more evident at the high-tech level. A more advanced version of the experience is when MR uses 3D scanning of the environment to bring physical objects into the virtual world. For example, your living room could become a Wild West saloon during a gunfight where you need to duck behind your actual furniture to avoid the bullets that whizz through the air. Mixed reality is still in its experimental phase and is present mainly in dedicated arcades, but companies like Microsoft are trying to commercialize it and introduce it to everyday use.
AR vs. VR: What Sets Them Apart
Now that we’ve nailed down the basics of both technologies, we can finally pit them against each other. The most obvious segments are the hardware and technology itself. Augmented reality is more accessible and affordable. The user just needs a camera phone and an app, which is usually free of charge. On the other hand, VR applications require a headset, which not everyone is comfortable with wearing for a long time. Motion sickness and claustrophobia in VR are real, so AR takes the cake when it comes to comfort and hardware requirements.
The next significant AR vs. VR difference is in the play space. Augmented reality has come a long way from requiring markers or working only on static objects. Basically, the world is your arena with AR. There are apps that let you check how a piece of furniture would fit in your room or how that expensive dress would look on you; some even let you check your looks with makeup on or different hair color. On a grander scale, mobile augmented reality lets you see information about landmarks, overlay cool effects across buildings, even translate signs.
Since virtual reality, by definition, is limited to a certain space; you can’t just walk through a crowd with a big gadget on your head. Being unable to see your surroundings, of course, poses a significant safety risk. That’s why virtual reality games and other apps are designed for a confined space, usually a medium-sized room or even a gaming chair. Since the developers plan the available space in advance, the players feel safer interacting with VR games since they know they won’t end up injured in the process.
So far, AR seems like a better deal. It’s cheaper, more accessible, and uses near-unlimited space. But, there’s another side to this AR vs. VR comparison - immersion and interactivity. As we’ve previously mentioned in the intro section, virtual reality is designed to entirely substitute what we see and hear with a virtual world. It’s easier to believe that you’re in a fantastic magical world when it encapsulates your vision than when you’re looking at it through your smartphone’s screen. Furthermore, some tech companies are developing ways to increase immersion even further with devices that simulate smells and tactile experiences, such as the wind on your skin, punches, and even let you walk and run in VR games via stationary treadmills. It’s evident that, if we compare AR vs. VR technology in terms of complexity, VR is more sophisticated.
The interaction with the virtual world continues to be the strongest suit of VR. Even the most basic virtual reality systems provide some kind of controls that both let you interact within 3D worlds and provide a certain level of tactility. You feel the controller vibration when you slice a cube in Beat Saber or punch a goon in Superhot VR. If you take on a VR painting course, you’ll need to move your arms like you’re grabbing a paintbrush and replicate the strokes on the canvas. This is where AR vs. VR usage drastically differs. A smartphone or even dedicated AR hardware is simply not capable of such complex interactions in 3D space.
The Best of Both Worlds
In the end, it’s not a battle with a clear winner, at least not at this point. Both technologies have their own pros and cons. The developers and tech companies are constantly exploring new exciting ways to apply them, whether for entertainment, work, education, or even medicine.
For augmented reality, you’ve probably already got everything you need to start enjoying it, which is a big plus when buying some brand new hardware would mean breaking the bank. When you compare VR vs. AR headsets and devices, the price gap is still wide, but at the same time, VR gaming is gradually becoming more affordable, though with some limitations cheaper technology always entails.
To sum it all up, we say: Give them both a shot if you get a chance. VR is definitely a bigger thrill if you can get your hands on a headset and an RTX 2070 graphics card, while AR can provide some exciting applications in everyday life. It has never been more exciting to explore new realities that technology is opening to us.
Frequently Asked Questions
There is no winner in the virtual reality vs. augmented reality duel. Both of these technologies introduce interesting but different ways to interact with games and your surroundings. Augmented reality is a more affordable option, as it usually doesn’t require more than an average smartphone to work. On the other hand, virtual reality provides a much deeper immersion in the virtual world and opens up the possibility of creating games that are unlike anything players now know.
VR is an abbreviation for virtual reality, while with AR, the meaning is augmented reality.
AR uses computer-generated graphics to overlay another image, usually camera feed from a smartphone, thus creating an additional layer over the real world. VR uses only computer graphics and is designed to immerse users in the virtual world, completely shutting out the real world. Lastly, MR or mixed reality is the most advanced of the three and involves merging the virtual with the physical world, usually with interactions in one affecting the other. There is no best option in the AV vs. VR vs. MR showdown, as each introduces different possibilities of interaction and application in various fields.
Pokemon GO is an augmented reality game. It uses global GPS data to construct actual streets and locations as landmarks the players can visit and also includes a mode where players can see Pokemons in the real world around them using their phones’ cameras. Pokemon GO is the most successful AR game ever made, with annual revenue of nearly $2 billion.
The AR vs. VR “war” will undoubtedly continue to rage on in the upcoming years. Both technologies have found their fans, investors and developers are interested in both, and they are continually improving. That being said, it’s more likely that mixed reality or room-scale VR end up being on the forefront of future tech simply due to the higher interactivity they offer compared to augmented reality.
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With a degree in humanities and a knack for the history of tech, Jovan was always interested in how technology shapes both us as human beings and our social landscapes. When he isn't binging on news and trying to predict the latest tech fads, you may find him trapped within the covers of a generic 80s cyberpunk thriller.