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Augmented Reality & Virtual Reality 101

Updated: Sep 6, 2022

Since we started Balti Virtual in 2015, we’ve spent every day thinking about augmented and virtual reality. This hyper-focus on emerging technologies has allowed us to create amazing experiences with our clients, but we’re often reminded that much of the general public doesn’t have a clear understanding of these technologies, and how they relate to each other.

Here’s our attempt to help clear up that confusion.

Virtual Reality (VR)

The term “Virtual Reality” was first coined in the 1980s by Jaron Lanier to describe a set of devices (a head-mounted display and pair of input gloves) that allowed the wearer to feel “present” in a computer-generated environment.

Today’s virtual reality systems like the Oculus Quest and Valve Index are pretty similar to the first VR devices, although they’ve had the benefit of 40+ years of exponential technological progress, which makes them thousands of times more powerful and inexpensive than their first ancestors. Where the first virtual reality devices cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and required experts to configure and maintain them, today’s VR devices cost hundreds of dollars and are about as easy to use as a mobile phone.

Aside from the improvements in affordability, ease of use, and richness of experience, the core of virtual reality still relies on a headset to provide a sense of immersion in a digital space. These spaces can run the gamut from the totally fantastical (ride a dragon) to the mundane (walk down your street in Google Earth).

In short: virtual reality uses a headset to take you anywhere (like inside of a human brain!).

Augmented Reality (AR)

The term “Augmented reality” came a bit later, first introduced in 1990 (although there were AR devices well before then). Where virtual reality transports the user to a digital space, augmented reality mixes computer graphics with the real world.

Another key difference between virtual reality and augmented reality is that while VR requires special hardware (a headset), AR can be experienced on a mobile phone.

Applications can range from adding cat ears to a selfie in Snapchat to overlaying turn-by-turn walking directions in Google Maps. Perhaps the most popular application of augmented reality (at least in the US) is the digital yellow first-down line inserted into NFL broadcasts.

In short: augmented reality brings computer graphics to where you are.

Blurred Lines

So hopefully now it’s clear: virtual reality uses a headset to feel “present” somewhere else and augmented reality mixes computer graphics with a view of the real world (usually using a smartphone).

Unfortunately, it’s getting less and less clear every day. There are augmented reality glasses and VR headsets that also offer AR features.

Our industry has responded by creating catch-all terms like “Extended Reality” (XR) or “Mixed Reality”. While these terms can be helpful by covering a wide spectrum of experiences under a single umbrella, they don’t help clarify the details of a specific project.

As much as we hate to use jargon, it’s been helpful for us to discuss each project in specific terms of goals and user experience. Is this a training simulator for Oculus Quest, or is it a basketball game for Snapchat?

At the end of the day, we’re always happy to be a resource to help our clients and partners navigate this evolving landscape, so please reach out if you have questions!

P.S. Here's a write-up that gives an in-depth look at AR, VR, and the Metaverse.

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