Virtual reality and augmented reality are often spoken about in the same breath as new and exciting technologies for the future – even more so than display technology like 8K and HDR. Both technologies open up virtual, three-dimensional worlds to real-world viewing in an affordable way for the general public like never before. But there are some differences between them, and depending on what kind of virtual or augmented experience you're interested in, one of them may be better suited to you than the other.
VR vs. AR isn't so much a battle, but a comparison. The differences between AR and VR are significant but nuanced. They're technologies on two sides of the same coin.
Already got a VR or AR headset and want some extra range? Here's how to extend your VR cables. Hint: your headset probably uses DisplayPort can be extended with a 7.5m active DisplayPort extension cable.
AR vs. VR, what's the difference?
The key difference between virtual reality and augmented reality is that VR creates an entirely new virtual world to explore. One that is entirely computer-generated. Augmented reality, on the other hand, overlays virtual elements over the real world. It augments reality, while virtual reality creates it.
Virtual reality can be everything from a VR game like Beat Saber or Half-Life: Alyx, to an educational tool like Google Earth VR. In these and many more cases, when you wear the headset you are entirely enveloped in the virtual world. Everywhere you look, there's more virtual reality. Not so with augmented reality.
Augmented reality instead blends the real and the virtual worlds. Headsets tend to use transparent or translucent screens that let you see the real world as well as the digital elements you're working with. That's made it an amazing tool for medical training, where internal organs can be modeled on a real-life person without surgery. It's also great for repair and maintenance, where a user can be shown digital instructions for how to manipulate real-world objects. In design, you can see what a car or other objects might look like in the real world, without having it in front of you.
That doesn't mean that these technologies can't cross over into each other's realms, though. Augmented reality might be more suited to design if you need a reference in real-world space, but if you want to create something larger than the physical space you have available, or something with no grounding in reality whatsoever, then VR is a much better medium.
Similarly, there are AR games like Minecraft Earth, which integrate 3D computer-generated worlds with the real world. You can knock through a "real" wall to find voxel blocks behind it, or catch virtual monsters on your smartphone while you walk around your town in Pokémon Go.
VR vs. AR is an important distinction to make, but the lines are blurred and the Venn diagram for both has a lot of overlapping circles.
That said, for now at least, they do have quite defined roles in homes and businesses. Augmented reality is more of a tool for design, training, logistics, and tourism. Virtual reality is better suited to entertainment, with a broader and deeper selection of games and movies. It's also a fantastic tool for realtors and architects who want to show what a building might be like to walk through.
Difference between VR and AR headsets
Just as is with their uses, the hardware that allows us to see augmented and virtual reality shares some technology. But comparing augmented reality vs. virtual reality headsets does still show some distinct differences.
VR headsets like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift are entirely encompassing, meaning that no light reaches your eyes from the outside world. They use dual OLED displays placed behind lenses that help you see them up close as if they were further away. That eases eye comfort and enables the expansive virtual worlds that these headsets grant us a window to.
Augmented reality headsets and glasses like the Magic Leap One, and Microsoft Hololens, are a little different. They work by projecting images onto transparent glass screens in different layers, simulating distance through angling of the light to make objects appear at correct distances in the real world.
The key difference between AR and VR is that you can see through AR displays, not so with VR.
Although there are some wireless VR and AR headsets, most are wired. The HTC Vive and Oculus Rift both use HDMI cables and USB-A 3.0 cables, while the Hololens 2 uses a USB-C cable. That's changing all the time though, with new, bespoke solutions created for some headsets, while others look to the future, with higher-bandwidth DisplayPort and USB 4 technologies considered.