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What is Augmented Reality and How Does it Compare to VR and MR?

Pokemon Go Augmented Reality MR VR Akvelon

Augmented Reality is changing the way we see the world every day. Peering at our phone screens, we can add digital creatures like Pokemon to our surroundings, we can alter our faces with fun filters for pictures and videos, and can even test out furniture in our rooms before we buy it. Despite its increasing popularity, Augmented Reality is still easily confused with Virtual Reality and Mixed Reality, and these are sometimes even used interchangeably.

While they all introduce the user to computer generated content as part of a virtual world, they differ in the extent to which the user is immersed in, and interacts with that virtual world. To get a better understanding of Augmented Reality, we’ll take a closer look at it and how it compares to Mixed Reality and Virtual Reality.

There’s discussion about whether or not Mixed Reality and Augmented Reality are different, some arguing that they are indeed the same thing. However, our research leads us to believe that they are indeed two separate, though similar, types of reality technology and they will be treated as such throughout this post. As both technologies progress, they may become indiscernible and combine into one in the future. What do you think about Mixed Reality vs Augmented Reality? Join our discussion on Facebook.

Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality PokemonGo Akvelon

In Augmented Reality, the user sees virtual content overlaid onto their actual surroundings

In  Augmented Reality (AR), computer generated (CG) content  is overlaid on the real world, augmenting elements of the user’s environment in real time. AR technology is usually viewed through cameras on smartphones or through glasses like Google Glass, which appears to be preparing for a comeback in the AR industry. CG content is displayed on the phone screen or the lens of the glasses, appearing to be a part of their environment.

AR has already been incorporated into the daily lives of people all over the globe. The technology is increasingly used by popular apps, like PokemonGo and Snapchat. PokemonGo players can opt to use AR while catching Pokemon to make the experience feel more realistic. At the same time, some Snapchat users might not even realize that they are using AR technology when they snap a selfie using Snapchat’s various filters.  This technology is rising in popularity and isn’t expected to slow down anytime soon.

Mixed Reality

Mixed Reality minigolf Akvelon HoloLens

In Mixed Reality, CG content like the Windmill above are overlaid onto the user’s environment and anchored to it

Sometimes referred to as hybrid reality, Mixed Reality (MR) combines the real world with virtual worlds to create a hybrid environment in which the virtual content is anchored to, and interacts with the user’s actual environment, allowing the user to interact with the CG content.

MR is often confused with AR because it also merges the real world and virtual world by overlaying virtual content onto the user’s surroundings. The key difference between these two technologies is that in MR, the user can engage with, and interact with the CG content to a far greater extent. This makes the content appear to be more real, as though it is a moving part of their actual environment.

Like Augmented Reality, MR is also often viewed through smart phones and glasses. However, companies are working to create more sophisticated technology that allows for increased user interaction with the virtual content, like the Microsoft HoloLens and the Magic Leap.

Take a look at the Mixed Reality MiniGolf demo video for Microsoft’s HoloLens. The virtual components of the golf course are clearly anchored to the floor of the user’s environment. When he walks towards the spot where the windmill in the course is anchored, the windmill grows bigger. When he walks away, it shrinks in size.  The MR technology simulates a change in distance between the user and the windmill based off of his movements, making it appear that he is indeed walking around the course. The user can even view all sides of the windmill by walking around the anchor, showing increased interaction. While Mixed Reality is relatively newer than Augmented and Virtual Reality, it is proving to gain speed in development and popularity quickly.

Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality Immersive Akvelon

In Virtual Reality, the user is completely immersed in a virtual world

Virtual Reality (VR) is multimedia or computer-simulated reality which completely immerses the user into a virtual world. The world can be based off of real-world content, or completely imagined by its developers.

To view VR, the user wears a Head-Mounted Display (HMD), like Oculus Rift. There are two types of HMDs: those that have sensors built in and those that require external sensors to track the user’s position.The most accurate HMDs utilize external sensors. Both types of HMDs allow the user to walk around to some degree, typically a few feet. With the information collected by these sensors, the virtual images that lay before the user are altered to simulate movement through and even interaction with the virtual world.

When a user puts on the HMD, their actual surroundings completely disappear and are replaced with a virtual world. Several games are available for the Oculus Rift on Stream that allow the viewer to interact with the virtual world further using hand controllers. Users can climb mountains, grab virtual objects, and can opt to watch interactive horror stories in which they are the star. According to, the HMD market was valued at $3.25 Billion in 2016, and is expected to grow to reach $25.01 Billion  by 2022, so we can expect to see an increase in VR content as well.

Different Experience between AR, MR, and VR

Virtual Reality Mixed Reality Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality is considered the least immersive of the technologies. Users are aware of their actual surroundings, and can easily distinguish between what is part of the real world and what is CG content. Their interaction with the content is limited, its purpose is mainly to augment the user’s surroundings visually. Using PokemonGo as an example, when the user walks towards the spot where the Pokemon appears to be anchored, the Pokemon will remain the same size. The user cannot walk around the Pokemon either, giving them only one view.  It is obvious to the user that this is not a real object.The user’s interaction with the Pokemon is limited to just “throwing” digital objects like Pokeballs and berries at it.

Mixed Reality is noticeably more immersive. It combines the best of both AR and VR to create an environment which blurs what is real and what is CG content. Users enjoy far more interaction with the CG content. If PokemonGo were to incorporate MR technology into their app, the user would likely have more interaction with the Pokemon, perhaps given the ability to play fetch with an Eevee at your local park or to build a virtual track in your bedroom to race Ponyta. The Pokemon would also be anchored to one spot in the user’s real environment, making its presence in the user’s surroundings far more believable.   

Virtual Reality completely immerses the user into a virtual world. Stimulations coming through sights and sometimes even sounds and smells give the user the feeling that they are in an entirely different world, or at least a different part of our own world. For this to be applied to PokemonGo, the user would need to wear a HMD to play the game, potentially even needing hand controllers to properly play. The user’s surroundings completely fade away as he is immersed into the world of Pokemon. Don’t get too excited about a VR PokemonGo just yet: the head of it’s studio Niantic Labs made it clear that he isn’t actively pursuing incorporating this technology. He fears that VR technology is “too good” and may have a negative impact on society.

AR, MR, and VR have all seen increases in global interest in their capabilities and applications as well as great advances in technology. AR seems to hold the greatest potential. As of 2016, over 60% of the US population used smartphones, so the technology needed to view AR  is already in most of the public’s hands. This makes it far easier to disseminate AR to the public than VR, as it doesn’t usually require purchasing a headset to view it. MR that is used through smart phones apps also shares this benefit of AR, but the more immersive experiences that require glasses like the HoloLens will be in the same boat as VR.  Companies from every industry have taken notice to the potential of all 3 technologies, from surgeons utilizing AR and MR to assist with procedures, to tourism departments creating entire VR tours of landmarks. With the increased demand for and development of AR, MR, and VR technologies, it is good to know the differences.

Virtual Reality Cheat Sheet Acronyms

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