What’s Up with Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality

VR header

Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) don’t exist independently of each other.  Rather, both are points (or ranges) along a continuum. Augmented Reality is at one end (with low immersion, or high inclusion of physical reality) and Virtual Reality at the other end (with high immersion, or complete exclusion of physical reality).

AR vs VR graphic

Enhanced Reality

We may see the terms “Augmented” and “Virtual” Reality go away as more people gain experience with these technologies, and witness the overlap and connections between the two; we may see a term such as Enhanced Reality come into being as the entire spectrum with specific technologies clustering at different points along the spectrum.  Already some devices offer support for both, including the Michigan-based Immy Inc. whose headset includes an LCD panel to block vision for VR, or goes clear for Mixed Reality.

Mixed Reality

So what’s Mixed Reality?  The term is muddy and debated.  When Microsoft debuted HoloLens, they came up with the term Mixed Reality (MR) to differentiate it from previous AR technologies.  In 2017, they further tweaked the meaning of the term and at times seem to use it to refer to the entire AR/MR spectrum.  Currently their website offers the definition: “Mixed reality blends real-world and virtual content into hybrid environments where physical and digital objects coexist and interact.”  As a term created by a specific company for their products, MR may or may not catch on in a broader sense.  Other companies so far are mostly sticking to AR and VR, with a few using other terms (such as Intel’s “Merged Reality”).

Others continue to use Mixed Reality to refer to a middle point in the AR/VR spectrum.  Here’s a basic guide to the three technologies this use of the term identifies:




VR is a fully immersive environment; visual input from the real world is excluded and other kinds of input are typically minimized. MR places virtual objects in real-world contexts to make them look truly present.  It involves an interaction between the real and virtual which AR omits. AR overlays data, images, and objects over the user’s real world view without trying to make them look seamless—essentially a “Heads-Up Display.”
HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear, PSVR Microsoft HoloLens, Magic Leap, DAQRI Smart Helmet/Glasses Google Glass, Epson Moverio, ODG R8/R9

  • Immersive environment
    • Completely blocks physical world
    • 360-degree surround
  • Limited real-world physical movement
  • Generally tethered
  • May involve handheld controllers

  • Tightest integration with the physical world
  • Untethered
  • Captures surrounding environment
    • Can capture hand gestures
    • Can allow for safe navigation

  • Lowest-cost hardware
  • Greatest awareness of surroundings; allows safe navigation of the physical environment
  • Typically voice-controlled

  • Immersive simulations
  • In-depth experiences
  • Safe first (or repeated) exposure to hazardous situations

  • Embedded support tightly integrated with what user sees
  • Third-party coaching/mentoring
  • Overlaid diagrams/ cutaways/ guides

  • Embedded support triggered by elements in the environment
  • Context-sensitive information
  • Reference materials and task lists
  • Real-time information updates

Next time the topic of AR/VR comes up (as it does more and more these days) you can reference this table!

Applications for our Unity bootcamp are now closed. Sign up for our newsletter to get updated on new class schedules.