Curious about the difference between augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR)? From Pokemon Go to the Oculus Quest, we break it down for you.
The terms “virtual reality” and “augmented reality” get thrown around a lot. VR headsets, such as the Oculus Quest or Valve Index, and AR apps and games, such as Pokemon Go, are still popular. They sound similar, and as the technologies develop, they bleed into each other a bit. But they’re two very different concepts, with characteristics that readily distinguish one from the other.
What Is Virtual Reality?
Oculus Quest 2
VR headsets completely take over your vision to give you the impression that you’re somewhere else. The HTC Vive Cosmos, the PlayStation VR, the Oculus Quest, the Valve Index, and other headsets are opaque, blocking out your surroundings when you wear them. If you put them on when they’re turned off, you might think you’re blindfolded.
When the headsets turn on, however, the LCD or OLED panels inside are refracted by the lenses to fill your field of vision with whatever is being displayed. It can be a game, a 360-degree video, or just the virtual space of the platforms’ interfaces. Visually, you’re taken to wherever the headset wants you to go—the outside world is replaced with a virtual one.
Tethered VR headsets, such as the Index and PS VR, and standalone VR headsets, such as the Quest 2, use six-degrees-of-freedom (6DOF) motion tracking. That tech comes courtesy of external sensors or cameras (for the Index and PS VR) or outward-facing cameras (for the Quest 2). This means the headsets don’t just detect the direction in which you’re facing, but any movement you make in those directions. This, combined with 6DOF motion controllers, lets you move around in a virtual space, with virtual hands. This space is usually limited to a few square meters across, but it’s much more immersive than just standing still and looking in different directions. The drawback is that you need to be careful not to trip over any cable that connect the headset to your computer or game system.
For both games and apps, virtual reality supersedes your surroundings, taking you to other places. Where you are physically doesn’t matter. In games, you might sit in the cockpit of a starfighter. In apps, you might virtually tour distant locations as if you were there. There are tons of possibilities in VR, and they all involve replacing everything around you with something else.
What Is Augmented Reality?
Whereas virtual reality replaces your vision, augmented reality adds to it. AR devices, such as the Microsoft HoloLens and various enterprise-level “smart glasses,” are transparent, letting you see everything in front of you as if you are wearing a weak pair of sunglasses.
The technology is designed for free movement, while projecting images over whatever you look at. The concept extends to smartphones with AR apps and games, such as Pokemon Go, which use your phone’s camera to track your surroundings and overlay additional information on top of it, on the screen.
AR displays can offer something as simple as a data overlay that shows the time, to something as complicated as holograms floating in the middle of a room. Pokemon Go projects a Pokemon on your screen, on top of whatever the camera is looking at. The HoloLens and other smart glasses, meanwhile, let you virtually place floating app windows and 3D decorations around you.
This technology has a distinct disadvantage compared with virtual reality: visual immersion. While VR completely covers and replaces your field of vision, AR apps only show up on your smartphone or tablet screen, and even the HoloLens can only project images in a limited area in front of your eyes. It isn’t very immersive when a hologram disappears once it moves out of a rectangle in the middle of your vision, or when you must stare at a small screen while pretending that the object on that screen is in front of you.
Basic AR that overlays simple information over what you’re looking at can function perfectly fine with 3DOF. However, most AR applications require 6DOF in some form, tracking your physical position so the software can maintain consistent positions for the images it projects in 3D space. This is why the HoloLens uses a stereoscopic camera and advanced pattern recognition to determine where it is at all times, and why more advanced, AR-centric smartphones use multiple rear-facing cameras to track depth.
Augmented reality has nearly limitless possibilities. Phone-based AR software has been recognizing surroundings and providing additional information about what it sees for years now, offering live translation of text or pop-up reviews of restaurants as you look at them. Dedicated AR headsets, such as the HoloLens, can do even more, letting you virtually place different apps as floating windows around you. They effectively give you a modular, multi-monitor, computing setup.
Currently, AR is only widely available on smartphones, and doesn’t have the vision-augmenting aspect of enterprise-level AR displays. This means AR is still very limited, until a consumer AR headset is released.
Magic Leap One
The Difference Between AR and VR
Virtual reality and augmented reality accomplish two very different things in two very different ways, despite their devices’ similar designs. VR replaces reality, taking you somewhere else. AR adds to reality, projecting information on top of what you’re already seeing. They’re both powerful technologies that have yet to make their mark with consumers, but show a lot of promise. They can completely change how we use computers in the future, but whether one or both will succeed is anyone’s guess right now.
About Will Greenwald
I’ve been PCMag’s home entertainment expert for over 10 years, covering both TVs and everything you might want to connect to them. I’ve reviewed more than a thousand different consumer electronics products including headphones, speakers, TVs, and every major game system and VR headset of the last decade. I’m an ISF-certified TV calibrator and a THX-certified home theater professional, and I’m here to help you understand 4K, HDR, Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos, and even 8K (and to reassure you that you don’t need to worry about 8K at all for at least a few more years).
My Areas of Expertise
- Home theater technology (TVs, media streamers, and soundbars)
- Smart speakers and smart displays
- Game consoles and peripherals
- AR and VR technology
The Technology I Use
I test TVs with a Klein K-80 colorimeter, a Murideo SIX-G signal generator, a HDFury Diva 4K HDMI matrix, and Portrait Displays’ Calman software. That’s a lot of complicated equipment specifically for screens, but that doesn’t cover what I run on a daily basis.
I use an Asus ROG Zephyr 14 gaming laptop as my primary system for both work and PC gaming (and both, when I review gaming headsets and controllers), along with an aging Samsung Notebook 7 as my portable writing station. I keep the Asus laptop in my home office, with a Das Keyboard 4S and an LG ultrawide monitor attached to it. The Samsung laptop stays in my bag, along with a Keychron K8 mechanical keyboard, because I’m the sort of person who will sit down in a coffee shop and bust out not only a laptop, but a separate keyboard. Mechanical just feels better.
For my own home theater, I have a modest but bright and accurate TCL 55R635 TV and a Roku Streambar Pro; bigger and louder would usually be better, but not in a Brooklyn apartment. I keep a Nintendo Switch dock connected to it, along with a PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X so I can test any peripheral that comes out no matter what system it’s for. I also have a Chromecast With Google TV for general content streaming.
As for mobile gear, I’m surprisingly phone-ambivalent and have swapped between iPhones and Pixels from generation to generation. I favor the iPhone for general snapshots when I need to take pictures of products or cover events, but I also have a Sony Alpha A6000 camera for when I feel like photo walking.