Are we living in a simulation? This laughed-at notion is becoming increasingly acceptable as technological advances are blurring the boundaries between reality and illusion. There is now not one but three different flavors of synthetic reality: Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR).
But there’s a lot of confusion about what each version of reality is. This is something that is akin to evolving technologies. For instance, after decades, there’s still debate over what is artificial intelligence (AI).
So while we know that the content we’ll be posting here might be subject to change in the future, we’ll try to clear out the confusion that surrounds VR, AR and MR—especially the last two.
What is Virtual Reality (VR)?
Virtual reality is the better known of the three Rs, mostly because of the botched attempt to bring VR to market in the 90s. At the time, the technology to satisfy the requirements for true VR wasn’t developed yet, which resulted in abandoned projects.
This time around however, things are much different, and the technology has matured to create true VR.
As the name implies, VR is an experience that takes users to a purely synthetic environment, which involves nothing of the immediate reality that surrounds them. VR involves rendered graphics that fill your entire vision and is usually complemented by 3D sounds to make the experience more real.
A true, immersive VR experience should completely shut off the subject from the surroundings, and deceive the mind into thinking it’s in a totally different world. The effectiveness of VR should manifest in impulsive reactions that the user shows to different scenes in comparison to the same scene appearing on a flat screen or TV display.
That said, I believe that the definition I just gave requires a bit of clarification.
Synthetic doesn’t mean that VR environments need to be pure computer-generated imagery (CGI). It can also include 360 degree footages of natural environments, or a mixture of both CGI and video.
However, virtual environments and 360 video per se do not amount to VR experience. As opposed to AR and MR, VR requires Head Mounted Displays (HMDs), whether it’s the $20 Google Cardboard or the $800 HTC Vive—naturally, the latter will provide a more realistic experience.
Some headsets have auxiliary accessories such as light sensors and hand props to enable the user to interact with the environment by walking around. Other related technologies include eye-tracking, which enables advanced features such as foveated rendering in VR headsets.
For the moment, gaming remains the main use case of VR. However, it is also being used in professional work, such as training athletes, psychological therapy or real estate business.
The inconsistency between what your eyes and mind are experiencing and the reality that surrounds you can be VR’s greatest limiting factor. This is something that has been addressed in AR and MR.
What are Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR)?
I bundled AR and MR together because there’s a lot of overlap—and confusion—regarding their definition and uses. These two are more mysterious than their older sibling, and often used interchangeably.
As opposed to VR, AR and MR both add virtual elements to the real environment that surrounds you. They can imply the use of headsets, such as the ill-fated Google Glass, or can be used with normal displays, such as a smartphone or tablet.
Both technologies are strongly tied to artificial intelligence–related technologies such as computer vision, which enables software to analyze the content of digital images. Since they do not shut users off from their immediate vicinities, both AR and MR have much broader use cases than VR and are being exploited in a number of professional fields.
But what is the difference between augmented and mixed reality? Perhaps the best way to understand is through use cases.
AR acts as an overlay to the real world. For instance, imagine a real-estate app that will show which houses are on sale and what the prices are by adding labels next to them when you hold your phone’s camera against them. In a hospital, an AR app can show the vital signs or other information related to patients when a doctor or nurse views them through their tablet’s camera. The more trivial use cases include the camera filters you see in Snapchat and Facebook Messenger.
MR also adds virtual elements to the real world, but instead of acting as an overlay, those elements become anchored to a location in the real world. For instance, an architecture MR app can help designers and architects view a 3D image of building on the construction site and explore it from different angles. One of the professed uses of MR is virtual work spaces, where you can view your office through an MR headset, where interactive tools and objects appear.
Pokemon Go, the famous mobile game that broke all the records, is considered AR by some and MR by others. But it seems that it’s more the former than the latter, since the characters do not become fixed in 3D space and remain static in size and depth on the player’s screen.
However, Microsoft’s Minecraft demo at E3 2015 is a real example of MR in action.
To this day, MR still remains a mystery and the real world applications are still being kept behind closed doors. Microsoft has a head-start with its HoloLens project but has yet to ship its product, as is the case with the secretive Magic Leap, the company that has raised $1.4 billion without showing any substantial plans to the public.
All major tech corporations are investing in AR and MR. Google declared Lens in its latest developer conference. Facebook also announced an AR toolkit in its latest F8 conference. And Apple made it clear that it wasn’t being left out of the race in its latest WWDC conference. Expect Amazon to make its move soon.
So back to the first question. Are we living in a Matrix-like simulation, or will we soon be? That’s for you to decide. But for the moment, let’s revel in RR (real reality) while it lasts.