After decades of false dawns and disappointments, augmented reality and virtual reality (AR and VR) are at last showing signs of fulfilling their promise. Technology giants such as Apple, Facebook and Microsoft are placing big bets on the future of these once-niche immersive technologies.
While often bracketed together, AR and VR are distinct interactive technologies that create very different experiences for the user. They also differ in their potential applications, product hardware and stages of development.
It is easy enough to clear up any basic confusion about what each does. AR allows the user to interact with virtual objects and images in the real world whereas VR completely immerses the user in an artificial 3D environment that they interact with on a virtual-reality headset or in a specially designed room.
The most famous recent example of AR is arguably Pokémon Go, which sends players to catch creatures superimposed on their surroundings via their smartphone screen. The game hit the headlines in 2016 when some players were injured chasing virtual monsters in hazardous real-world surroundings.
The most famous recent example of AR is arguably Pokémon Go, which sends players to catch creatures superimposed on their surroundings via their smartphone screen
VR is also commonly associated with video games, but instead of imposing layers of external images on to everyday life it filters out the real world entirely to let players climb a mountain, say, shoot asteroids or explore galaxies.
The prospects for AR and VR have developed rapidly in the past few years as computing innovations have improved graphics, reduced drawbacks such as user nausea and made hardware more affordable. Gaming fans will benefit, of course, but there is also excitement about the possibilities in fields such as manufacturing, education, product sales and science.
Take medicine, where there are countless potential applications for AR and VR with distinct uses for each technology. A look at surgery helps illustrate the difference.
Touch Surgery , a UK start-up, is developing AR technology that allows medical students to view live operations overlaid with guides that show how the procedure is performed. VR plays a different role. In the US, doctors are using VR visualisations to prepare for complex surgery, including the separation of conjoined twins based on a detailed simulated model of the infants’ bodies. Mixing the real and virtual worlds is ideal for training students, whereas a wholly virtual version of a patient allows surgeons to try out strategies for a complex operation where there is only one chance of success in real life.
A virtual version of a patient allows surgeons to try out strategies for a complex operation where there is only one chance of success in real life
Manufacturers are increasingly turning to AR and VR to simplify processes and improve design and safety. But, again, the difference between the two technologies is clear. The aerospace giant Lockheed Martin is equipping workers with HoloLens AR headsets to feed them information as they go about their real-world tasks. In contrast, the carmaker Audi is using VR to design and test vehicles and even factories without using a single rivet.
Place your bets
The distinction between AR and VR is underscored by disagreements between tech companies over their possibilities. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, has provided the most high-profile support for VR by paying $2bn in 2014 to buy Oculus, whose vastly improved $400 headset helped trigger renewed interest in VR’s possibilities.
Zuckerberg has argued that VR is the next big communication platform after smartphones, saying: “We'll have the power to share our full sensory and emotional experience with people wherever we'd like.” He found AR less exciting because, he said, the technology lags behind VR.
In contrast, Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, has described AR as a “core technology” and argues that VR’s complete immersion experience has fewer applications in the real world. “[VR] probably has a lower commercial interest over time,” he said in 2016. “Less people will be interested in that.” In late 2017, Apple was reported to be working on its own AR headset for sale in 2020 as it searches for a breakthrough product to follow the iPhone .
Headsets are the wearable tech that make both AR and VR work, but they differ greatly because of the technologies’ contrasting requirements. VR headsets are getting lighter and more comfortable, but if you have chosen to submerge your brain in another world, whether for leisure or work, it may not matter too much if you are wearing an apparatus that looks big and clunky to outsiders.
For AR to enhance our lives in the same way as smart devices will require eyewear that is as cool and easy to control as an iPhone. Here AR has plenty of catching up to do. Microsoft’s HoloLens has limited field of vision and is used by companies rather than consumers – with aesthetics to match.
For AR to enhance our lives in the same way as smart devices will require eyewear that is as cool and easy to control as an iPhone
Google Glass failed to take off when the internet search platform’s AR glasses went on sale for $1,500 in 2014. The lenses have been adopted for various healthcare applications, but still look like something you’d wear for a specific purpose, not to be on trend.
Into the future
Gartner, the technology consultancy, remains cautious about the short-term prospects for AR and VR despite making them a top trend to watch. Both are still five to 10 years from widespread mainstream adoption for commercial purposes – something that will require the quality to improve and prices to fall from about $2,000 for a superior device, according to Gartner.
But things can move quickly in the tech sphere. AR and VR have powerful backers in Facebook and Apple, each of which has strategic incentives to make their favoured technology work. Another big hope for AR is Magic Leap, a start-up that has spent $2bn developing AR glasses and is set to unveil in 2018. However, details remain sketchy, no price has been announced and the glasses will initially be for “designers, developers and creatives”.
AR and VR have powerful backers in Facebook and Apple, each of which has strategic incentives to make their favoured technology work
Ultimately, advances in display technology, cameras and other sensors will break down the distinction between AR and VR, Gartner argues. The future may lie in a fusion of the two to give mixed reality. This could mean a single pair of glasses that does everything or, further off, virtual content that is able to interact with the real world.
“One of the most profound changes will be the merging of device capabilities between AR and VR into mixed reality or merged reality… the resulting data will provide more than enough data to allow developers to create both transparent and opaque apps on all types of devices,” Gartner says.
Instead of asking what the difference is between VR and AR, future generations may wonder whether there was a difference at all.