Virtual Reality and its relatives Mixed Reality and Augmented Reality are exciting, powerful technologies that have all gained a lot of attention in the past year. The question is, what do they all mean?
What are Virtual Reality, Mixed Reality and Augmented Reality?
Many people have not yet had an opportunity to try one or more of these technologies. There’s much overlap in these terms as well, which can make the learning process more confusing.
Virtual Reality (VR) is a fully immersive experience; generally, it involves a headset with separate displays for each eye, blocking out the physical world and providing a three-dimensional visual experience. VR generally involves headphones for 3D sound as well. Systems may include hand controllers; touch feedback today is limited to vibration but several companies are working on glove systems for enhanced control and tactile experience.
VR isn’t a new idea; there were 19th Century attempts at 3D photography and the first head-mounted displays came out in the 1960s. The term “Virtual Reality” came into popularity in the 1980s and VR technology made strides in the 1990s. However, computers of the era couldn’t provide enough resolution and their systems had major problems with frame rate and lag, causing disorientation and nausea in users.
History of AR/VR
Through the 2000s and 2010s, computer technology really advanced, and displays got better and better. Finally, in 2016 three things happen which made VR burst back into the public eye.
- Mobile VR came of age, both through low-end units like Google Cardboard and more impressive options such as Samsung GearVR.
- After several years of development and crowdfunding (and a high-profile purchase by Facebook), Oculus brought its Rift headset to consumers.
- Shortly after, HTC released its Vive headset, which provided room-based tracking for an even more immersive experience.
Later in the year, Google came into higher-end mobile VR with Google Daydream and Playstation released its own VR headset. In 2016, more than 6 million VR headsets were sold (the majority mobile), providing almost $2 billion in revenue. For many, 2016 was the first year they either heard of VR or took it seriously, and while a lot of the growth was in gaming, businesses are looking seriously at VR for training, design, visualization and other tasks.
Augmented Reality (AR) also exploded on the gaming scene in 2016 with Pokémon Go. In early summer, the game became a craze. Kids and adults raced through the streets, tracking down and catching Pokémon in parks and businesses. Again, while this was the first time AR was in the public eye, the concept dates back. Armed forces have used heads-up displays since the 1960s, augmenting pilots’ views with additional text and graphics. The term “Augmented Reality” dates to 1990, following on the heels of “Virtual Reality” as a term. Television broadcasts have been augmenting live sports footage since the late 1990s with virtual lines and markers added to the view of the field. In 2014 Google made its first foray into wearable AR with Google Glass, eventually pulling it from a consumer market that wasn’t ready.
Unlike VR, AR is not immersive and may or may present a 3D view to the user. Much current AR runs on mobile devices, adding virtual objects or an information overlay to a real-world view. There are already functional AR headsets on the market, however, including Microsoft HoloLens (currently only available in a developer kit) and the DAQRI Smart Helmet (which includes AR glasses, with their standalone Smart Glasses just arriving on the market).
Like VR, many current users of VR are entertainment- and gaming-focused; however, also like VR, Augmented Reality holds a lot of promise for practical uses, including training or supporting repair personnel, assisting architects and construction workers on-site, and helping medical practitioners during complicated procedures.
That’s a quick introduction to both VR and AR.
In this next blog, I’ll explore how they relate to each other and how the term “mixed reality” fits in.