What is VR, AR & XR? A guide to virtual, augmented and extended realities

Not too long ago, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) were mere fantasies confined to the pages of science fiction. Today, however, they’re rapidly gaining traction and becoming increasingly popular. Despite their conceptual roots dating back decades, these technologies necessitated specialized components and substantial processing power, which, until recently, remained prohibitively expensive and bulky for widespread adoption. Now, propelled by the advancement of mobile connectivity, particularly with the rollout of 5G, VR and AR are experiencing unprecedented growth.

Already, these innovations are revolutionizing various aspects of our lives, from work and recreation to shopping and relaxation. Picture yourself collaborating with remote colleagues, all virtually present in the same room, manipulating a shared 3D model. Envision being able to virtually sample an outfit before making an online purchase. And consider the prospect of immersing yourself fully in a movie, game, or meditation session, shutting out your physical surroundings entirely. These experiences are not only feasible but increasingly accessible thanks to the evolution of VR, AR, and mixed reality (MR), collectively known as extended reality (XR).

VR vs. AR vs. XR: What’s the difference?

Virtual reality, commonly abbreviated as VR, is a frequently encountered term in popular culture. However, it only encompasses a segment of experiences within what is referred to as the virtuality continuum. Imagine this continuum as a spectrum stretching from the entirely physical world at one end to the completely virtual at the other. VR occupies a position close to the fully virtual extreme, whereas augmented reality (AR) can be characterized by its placement along this spectrum. Let’s delve into the definitions of each:

  • Virtual Reality (VR) is an experience where users are fully immersed in a virtual world, unable to see the surrounding physical space.
  • Augmented Reality (AR) is the experience nearest to the physical end of the virtuality continuum. In AR, users remain fully aware of the physical space but with digital objects or effects overlaying their view.
  • Extended Reality (XR) is the umbrella term that encompasses all of these technologies. Therefore, XR may refer to an experience anywhere along the continuum or multiple experiences collectively.

How it works: an introduction to XR technology

While all iterations of extended reality (XR) share the common goal of generating interactive digital content, they vary in their degrees of virtual immersion and methods of interaction. Consequently, each variant relies on specific methodologies to shape user perception and afford control in different manners. To grasp the distinct applications of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), familiarity with their underlying technologies and terminology is essential.

How does VR work?

Creating a fully immersive virtual experience is the primary objective of VR technology. To achieve this, VR employs a range of devices and techniques designed to block out the real world and seamlessly integrate visuals, audio, and controls. These include:

1. Headset: Also known as a head-mounted device (HMD), the headset is the core hardware component of any wearable VR system. It envelops the user’s eyes with lenses that view internal displays, while built-in speakers or headphones provide audio feedback. Modern headsets typically come in three types: mobile, tethered/connected, and standalone.

2. Stereoscopic Imaging: This technique, also known as stereoscopy, creates 3D visuals by presenting slightly offset images to each eye through the headset’s lenses. The brain combines these images to perceive depth, similar to real-life vision.

3. Field of View (FoV): Achieving a lifelike field of view has been a significant challenge in VR development. While the best headsets approach the natural human FoV of 200-220 degrees, even a lower FoV of 100-180 degrees can create a sense of immersion.

4. Frame Rate (FPS) and Refresh Rate: High frame rates and refresh rates are crucial for a believable VR experience, as lower rates can induce motion sickness. VR systems require powerful graphics processing to maintain frame rates above 90 FPS.

5. Latency: Low latency, the time between motion tracking and on-screen movement, is essential for reducing motion sickness. Achieving low latency requires sensitive tracking, high processing power, and fast internet connections.

6. Degrees of Freedom (DoF): VR headsets offer either three or six degrees of freedom. While 3DoF tracks rotational movement, 6DoF is necessary for tracking directional movement in 3D space.

7. Motion Tracking Sensors: VR headsets rely on sensors to track head, controller, and eye movements. Modern headsets can achieve 6DoF tracking with minimal lag.

8. Spatial Audio: VR headsets use immersive audio technology, such as spatial audio, to create a sense of directional sound. This technology tricks the brain into perceiving sound from any direction, enhancing the immersive experience.

9. VR Controllers: Most VR headsets include handheld or hand-worn controllers with various features, from traditional buttons to motion tracking and haptic feedback. Advances in hand tracking and haptic technology aim to create more responsive and immersive controls.

10. Haptic Feedback: Haptic feedback technology conveys a sense of touch to users through controllers or other devices. VR is driving advancements in haptic headsets, gloves, and suits to enhance tactile immersion.

How does AR work?

In contrast, augmented reality (AR) focuses on merging virtual elements with the physical world. The technologies utilized in AR differ from those in VR, though there are areas of overlap. Here are some key components:

1. Computer Vision: At the heart of AR lies computer vision, a field that extracts digital information from visual images. This technology involves detecting points of interest, mapping the 3D structure of a scene, and tracking relevant points as they move within the space.

2. Tracking Methods: AR/MR content delivery relies on various tracking methods. Marker-based tracking uses visual cues like QR codes to trigger actions. Markerless tracking employs advanced feature detection for recognizing dimensions and movement, such as facial features. Location-based tracking utilizes spatial coordinates, often GPS, to map scenes.

3. Motion Sensors: AR/MR devices require precise motion tracking for natural movement in 3D space. This can be achieved through optical sensors, accelerometers, gyroscopes, GPS, or a combination thereof.

4. Smartphones: Modern smartphones encompass the capabilities mentioned above, along with sufficient processing power, making them suitable for AR interactions via the camera and screen. Many popular apps, like Snapchat and Pokémon GO, already integrate AR features.

5. AR Glasses: Another AR platform is AR glasses or goggles, which project a miniature display in front of one or both eyes, overlaying information onto the user’s real-world view. While several AR glasses are available to consumers, true AR functionality goes beyond just having a see-through display. Companies like Apple are developing AR glasses, indicating a potential mainstream adoption in the near future.

Despite the ongoing advancements in extended reality technology, the concept of immersive technology is not new. People have been experimenting with immersive experiences for over a century, predating the advent of computers. Today’s achievements in XR technology can be traced back over a century, highlighting the long-standing fascination with immersive experiences.

VR and AR: how they are used

While VR is commonly associated with gaming and video streaming, exemplified by popular headsets like the Meta Quest and Sony PS VR, its applications extend far beyond entertainment. Similarly, AR is predominantly recognized through mobile apps such as Snapchat and Pokémon Go. Nevertheless, the utilization of these technologies spans various domains and is continuously expanding.

In fields like work, education, healthcare, and art, XR technology plays a pivotal role, reflecting a broader trend toward interconnectivity and automation in the contemporary economy. While the momentum behind these advancements was undoubtedly bolstered by pandemic-induced lockdowns and the rise of remote work, the trajectory can be traced back decades within the history of VR. To gain insight into the current landscape of VR-related technology and its future trajectory, it’s imperative to explore the diverse array of existing use cases.

The future of VR and AR technology

XR products have already established a robust and expanding market, surpassing $20 billion globally in 2021 and forecasted to soar to $453.5 billion by 2030, as reported by Report Ocean. Evolving from an experimental niche, VR and AR have demonstrated their efficacy in enhancing connectivity, productivity, and safety across various industries. With hybrid functionalities now materializing, XR technology firmly anchors itself within the framework of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, heralding profound societal transformations driven by the exponential advancement of cutting-edge technologies.

Integral to this revolution is the proliferation of 5G, ushering in faster and more reliable internet connectivity worldwide. Simultaneously, advancements in mobile hardware enhance the accessibility of AR, particularly in conjunction with the Internet of Things (IoT), a burgeoning network of interconnected smart devices.

Another significant facet of this paradigm shift is the emergence of the metaverse, envisioned by Meta and other organizations. Designed primarily for VR, these virtual realms anticipate broader adoption of the technology in the forthcoming years.

As VR and AR technologies continue to evolve, they will inevitably become more ubiquitous. Devices will become sleeker, lighter, more fashionable, and affordable, while software capabilities advance. Coupled with the expansion of 5G, the proliferation of the metaverse, and the overarching trend of heightened connectivity in modern society, XR technology is poised to integrate seamlessly into our daily lives—for social interaction, professional endeavors, and recreational pursuits alike.