At the time of the art form's humble beginnings in the early '70s, the most complex of video games involved two white rectangles bouncing a square "ball" back and forth. Todya, we have games so immersive and in-depth that even the developers aren't able to beat them. The industry, its products, and the tools we use to play them would be unrecognizable if you took them back in time to show the gamers of yesteryear. But if emerging technologies are any indication, that evolution is far from over.
Two technologies at the the bleeding edge. Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR), both of which already exist in some form today, very likely will mark the next big step forward in the world of gaming technologies. They've already begun to impact commerce, business, design, entertainment and so much more.
But what, exactly, is the difference? And where do they go from here?
What is virtual reality?
Virtual reality is, essentially, when you completely replace the real world with a digital one.
The history of virtual reality actually stretches all the way back to 1960 — that's when the very first VR head-mounted display, called the Telesphere Mask, was invented by a man called Morton L Heilig. While quite rudimentary by today's standards, this headset offered stereoscopic 3D, wide vision and stereo sound — kind of like a 3D movie theater you could wear on your head. While more complicated and advanced, most of today's VR headsets still function on the same basic principles as this one.
VR is kind of like hopping into a video game, wherein donning a headset (and usually interacting with the space via some type of controller or remote) transports you to a fully-digital world, realm or universe and completely, purposefully, obscures the real world in the process.
There are different ways to go about this, though. Some VR headsets, like Google's Daydream View, aren't standalone devices. They rely on a smartphone to function as the display screen and utilize a Bluetooth remote to interact with said phone display. As VR technology has advanced and more technically sophisticated devices have become more readily available and affordable, these have started to feel increasingly primative by comparison.
The best of both worlds, and what is looking to be the dominant application of virtual reality, can be found in the latest generation of standalone VR headsets. Meta's Quest 2 (formerly Oculus) is one such device, which has its own headset, remotes/controllers and requires no tethered computer in order to function and, increasingly, offer a functionally equivalent level of performance.
What do you do in VR? Options run the gamut from basic, Viewmaster-esque experiences like the Stranger Things Experience from a few years back, to fully-fledged video games with dozens of hours of content to play through, like the VR port of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Whatever the case, the experience must completely replace actual reality (however temporarily) to qualify as VR. If this seems a bit like 1999's The Matrix to you, you're right on the money — that universe is a pretty good (if not exactly tantalizing) analogy for what VR is.
What is augmented reality?
Augmented reality is, essentially, when you add a digital layer on top of the real world itself.
While VR is completely immersive, augmented reality has probably snuck into your life in some way, shape or form without you even noticing —its much more subtle and, at this juncture, has more real-world applications. If you've ever played Pokémon Go, for instance, that's AR. If you've ever tried a virtual furniture app to see what a new piece, like a couch, looks like in your living room (IKEA, Target and Wayfair all have one), that's AR. If you've used an app to virtually try on sneakers or apparel, that's AR. If you've downloaded an app to show you the constellations in the night sky, that's AR. The list goes on and on.
Practically, augmented reality is when you look at reality though a gadget that has a screen and a camera — at this stage, usually a phone — that makes it look like something digital exists in that real, physical space.
The currently consumer applications of this technology tend to vacillate between entertainment and commerce, there are plenty of other commercial applications where AR is incredibly useful. Ford, for instance, started using AR tech to help design cars back in the mid-2010s with Microsoft's HoloLens. Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar Range Rover, and more have similarly employed versions of the tech. And that's just the auto industry, a mere pinpoint amongst the many, varying industries utilizing augmented reality tech right now. Even Disneyland is using AR tech for some of its latest and greatest attractions, like Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure (and it has future plans for its own patented, glasses-free AR). As you can plainly see, even if you were completely unaware of this technology, how it functions and its many, many uses, you've probably still interacted with it to some degree.
What is the difference between VR and AR?
As we've established, the primary difference is whether you are completely replacing the real world (VR) or adding a digital layer on top of it (AR)
However, there are additional differences which flow from this distinction. Since VR concerns fully virtual three-dimensional spaces, it necessarily requires a headset of some sort to block out the real world. And because you can't see where you are going, or your actual human hands, it also requires some sort of controller device for moving and operating your digital self. And while virtual worlds are computationally intense to build and render, it doesn't necessarily require a lot of computing horsepower to play them back, if a sufficient amount of that computational work has been done in advance or remotely.
Augmented reality, on the other hand, does not necessarily require a head-mounted display or a controller, because you can still see the real world, walk around in it, and use your hands. It does, however, require some sort of camera for taking the real world in as input, and considerably processing power for mapping a digital reality on top of it.
Virtual reality is like a fake universe you jump into and augmented reality is like putting fake things into the real world.