Choose Your Reality: Virtual, Augmented or Mixed / by TI

A Microsoft PR rep recently shut me down mid-sentence. I was starting to ask a question about HoloLens, the company’s augmented-reality glasses.

“It’s not augmented reality,” the rep interrupted. “It’s mixed reality.”

My first thought: Well, excuuuuuse me.

After getting over my stubbornness and doing some more research, I realized the rep was right. HoloLens and other “mixed reality” tech like Magic Leap is different from augmented reality — and both are different from virtual reality. Really different, in fact.

Some of the experts I consulted for this story say that the terminology wars are more plaster than substance. My take: Even if this is all marketing spin, consumers should be able to understand what they’re being sold. So if you’re confused, don’t worry. Re/code is here to help.

What is virtual reality?

You’ve probably heard the most about virtual reality, or VR. It’s the technology that is set to see big consumer releases within the next year, in devices like Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Sony’s Project Morpheus and the Samsung Gear VR. People also tend to know VR better because of its disastrous stab at the consumer market in the 1990s, and pop culture moments like “The Lawnmower Man” and “VR Troopers.”

In VR, you wear something on your head — currently, a “head-mounted display” that can look like a boxy set of goggles or a space helmet — that holds a screen in front of your eyes, which in turn is powered by a computer, gaming console or mobile phone. Thanks to specialized software and sensors, the experience becomes your reality, filling your vision; at the high end, this is often accompanied by 3-D audio that feels like a personal surround-sound system on your head, or controllers that let you reach out and interact with this artificial world in an intuitive way.

What distinguishes VR from adjacent technologies is the level of immersion it promises. When VR users look around — or, in more advanced headsets, walk around — their view of that world adjusts the same way it would if they were looking or moving in real reality.

The key buzzword here is presence, shorthand for technology and content that can trick the brain into believing it is somewhere it’s not. When you flinch at a virtual dinosaur, or don’t want to step off an imaginary ledge, that’s presence at work.

And that’s where one of VR’s historically toughest challenges comes in. Turns out, our brains are actually pretty smart at sniffing out badly delivered presence. If you’re riding a virtual roller coaster but your body doesn’t feel like it’s moving, the brain might think something is wrong, and … belch. Best-case scenario, you keep your lunch but wind up being made fun of by the “What Does the Fox Say?” guys on Norwegian TV:

Recent tech advances have cut down on the latency, the time between when you move your head and when the virtual picture adjusts; that’s crucial for not making the brain feel sick. However, the current conventional wisdom is that some simulator-sensitive folks may never be able to have a long VR experience, and it will always be possible to intentionally design stomach-churning software — something platform owners like Oculus and Sony will want to control.

Got it. So, what is augmented reality?

Augmented reality, or AR, is similar to VR in that it is often delivered through a sensor-packed wearable device, such as Google Glass, the Daqri Smart Helmet or Epson’s Moverio brand of smart glasses. That’s not always true, though, and the similarities stop shortly after that.

The key term for AR is utility. A typical augmented-reality experience will probably be a lot less exciting than meeting a dinosaur or riding a roller coaster, but analysts have argued that the potential market for AR applications is actually much larger than VR’s.

The whole point of that ugly word, augmented, is that AR takes your view of the real world and adds digital information and/or data on top of it. This might be as simple as numbers or text notifications, or as complex as a simulated screen, something ODG is experimenting with on its forthcoming consumer smart glasses. But in general, AR lets you see both synthetic light as well as natural light bouncing off objects in the real world.

AR makes it possible to get that sort of digital information without checking another device, leaving both of the user’s hands free for other tasks. That makes the current technology a natural fit for the enterprise, where a corporation in the energy field, for example, might want to give field workers who are inspecting equipment glasses that can take pictures of and deliver information about what they’re seeing from atop a wind turbine.

There are some consumer-facing applications for AR — for example, piloting a drone — but lately the non-enterprise crowd has decamped for either VR or mixed reality.