Decades ago, both virtual and augmented reality were either a poorly-thought out concepts for which the proper technology didn’t exist (see: the Virtual Boy) or relegated to the world of sci-fi. Today, however, both reality-bending technologies are indeed realities – albeit different ones.
So what’s the difference between augmented and virtual reality?
Remember when Pokémon Go was one of the biggest games on the planet? Whether or not you took part in that craze roaming your neighborhood for wild Bulbasaurs and Pikachus, the fact remains that the game was one of the biggest AR games of all time.
At its core, AR doesn’t “change” reality but, as the name would imply, “augment” it. In the case of Pokémon Go, that meant interfacing with your phone to “place” virtual Pokémon in certain areas. Your phone reads the code and displays the augmented image. There isn’t really a Pokémon “there,” but your phone sees the code, and you see the result, thus presenting you with “augmented” reality.
By contrast, virtual reality “creates” a different reality for you rather than adding to reality as it is.
Think of a VR helmet, such as the popular Oculus. These helmets aren’t reading code meant to make you see different images in the world around you, but to present you with a different reality entirely.
As this technology becomes more advanced, so too may the ways in which VR is able to convey these new realities. Right now, these helmets present you with games that display sights and sounds all their own. Perhaps in time, they’ll be able to make you “feel” these generated game realities by sending signals to your body as well. Maybe they’ll be able to make you taste and sell things in-game – and perhaps it will be able to do all of this at once.
Before Nintendo’s Virtual Boy debacle of the mid-90s, Star Trek: The Next Generation had predicted AR and VR in the form of its reality-creating “holodeck.” As the technology for both AR and VR become better, we come closer to making the total immersion of something like that a reality.