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(Pocket-lint) - Virtual reality and augmented reality. VR and AR.

Oye. What does it all mean?


There is absolutely no denying that virtual reality and augmented reality have increased in prominence and interest in the last few years. Technology is coming on in leaps and bounds and more and more headsets are being released. Software is improving and the potential application of these systems is also broadening. 

Apple is rumoured to be dabbling in both spaces, for instance, and could be prepping a headset that is either VR or AR (short for virtual reality and augmented reality, respectively). Google has been working on VR headsets for a while with budget DIY cardboard headset kits and Daydream VR. While Facebook-owned Oculus, HTC and more have been regularly developing new devices.

If you're new to the subject and have no idea what any of these terms mean or what those devices can do (or maybe you just want a bit more clarification), we're here to summarise the differences between VR and AR.

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What is virtual reality?

Virtual reality lets you experience something without even leaving the comfort of your own home. You can drop into a virtual war zone, travel the entire world in a second or even visit other planets. Puzzle-solving, sailing the high seas, jetting off in a spaceship, it's also possible and surprisingly believable. 

The technology is a computer-generated simulation of a 3D-environment that you can immerse yourself in, navigate around, and seemingly interact with via special hardware, like a chunky headset with handheld sensors.

In order for virtual reality to work there needs to be two things: hardware and software. The hardware powers the VR experience by giving you a display to look at, for instance, while the experience itself is nothing but software, such as a video game that puts you in the middle of the action. With this combo, you strap on a VR headset, load a VR app, and jump into a virtual world.

But a VR experience is limiting in that your focus is entirely on the world. For the most part, you can't look around your world, but you can't look away from it. You're trapped in it until you remove the headset or shut off the app. So, while you're dodging aliens on mars, don't expect to check the phone in your pocket unless you want to get out of the moment altogether.

Virtual reality is entirely virtual and never lets you simultaneously step into the real world. Pocket-lint has an entirely separate piece dedicated to explaining virtual reality, what it is, and how it works - so check that out for more details:

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What are some VR examples?

Although it seems like just yesterday that virtual reality hysteria was reignited, it's actually been a few years now, which is plenty of time for more than a dozen companies to introduce their own VR headsets at different price points.

There is a whole range of VR headsets available. From affordable devices you can plug your smartphone into to fully-fledged flagship headsets that require a beefy gaming PC to run

At the forefront are high-end devices like the HTC Vive Pro 2 that has eye-tracking built-in, the HP Reverb G2 with integrated self-contained tracking cameras, the all-singing, all-dancing Valve Index and the standalone Oculus Quest 2.

While other companies, including Google, have taken the affordable route and introduced headsets that are mere shells for your smartphone. That's right. Your smartphone is capable of powering and displaying a VR experience in conjunction with a headset.

There are plenty of virtual reality experiences available to try too. There are no end of free experiences to download and play around with as well as affordable games, experiences and you can even watch Netflix and Amazon Prime Video on VR headsets too

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What is augmented reality?

Augmented reality meanwhile lets you experience a computer-generated simulation of either a 3D or 2D environment, and all this is superimposed onto your actual view of the real world, creating a composite view. AR can add contextual layers of information in real-time as well, so you can see suggested restaurants nearby, for instance, while walking down the street as 3D aliens run past you.

Like VR, AR needs both hardware and software to work. There has to be something that powers and displays the augmented reality, while the augmented reality itself is software or a game or an app designed by a developer. But the main thing to realise about AR is that it enables you to interact with the real world while simultaneously experiencing something totally augmented.

You've seen AR experiences depicted in Hollywood movies like Her, Avatar, Minority Report, Iron Man, and Wall-E. And now, thanks to advances in modern technology, some companies, such as Microsoft, are making hardware that will allow little ole us to have augmented reality experiences too. 

Unlike virtual reality systems such as Oculus Rift, HoloLens isn't everything you see. Yes, you might see the surface of Mars in life-size 3D all around you – including under your feet. But if there's someone standing next to you, you can look at them through the holographically-printed lenses that give the system its name and actually see them.

What are some AR examples?

Potentially the most exciting example of an AR device is Microsoft Hololens. HoloLens is basically a holographic computer built into a headset that lets you see, hear, and interact with an environment (living room, outdoors, etc).

Microsoft built the headset without the need to be wirelessly connected to a PC. It uses high-definition lenses and spatial sound technology to create an immersive, interactive holographic experience.

Microsoft also packed the HoloLens with sensors and a high-end CPU and GPU. But Hololens isn't really available to consumers yet and is a high-end device that costs a small fortune. It is, however, potentially powerful with many different applications that could be really useful in the real world as the video demonstrates. 

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There are also numerous other AR examples cropping up all over the place though. New software developments like Google ARCore and Apple ARKit have appeared in recent years bringing augmented reality experiences onto mobile phones.

Now you can experience things like having AR navigation in Google Maps, see augmented reality creatures in search results, try before you buy with furniture, experience cool realities with Lego and much more besides

In short, we'll be seeing a lot more from both augmented reality and virtual reality in the near future. Devices will be cheaper, experiences more accessible and with any luck, this new technology will continue to improve all our lives. 

Writing by Maggie Tillman and Adrian Willings.