Both Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) have grown into a billion-dollar industry over the last couple of years. According to Digi-Capital, the VR/AR market is expected to grow by more than $100 billion dollars by 2021. It's important to understand that AR is NOT a competitor with VR, but a different kind of technology with very different use cases.
In this article, we will look at the fundamental difference between the two technologies and the various options currently available on the market.
Introduction to VR
Virtual Reality (VR) came a long way in the last century. A decade ago, VR machines were out of reach for ordinary people as their prices were very high. They could cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. Therefore, this technology was reserved for institutions such as NASA.
Modern VR started with the Kickstarter campaign of developer-centric Oculus DK1 and the prototypes made by Valve in 2012. It was not until 2016 when the first consumer-focused VR devices were released. This summer we saw major cuts in VR hardware prices. Now you can buy a VR headset that suits your budget and needs. From Google cardboard ($15) to HTC Vive ($799) - the possibilities are endless.
Nowadays people use VR hardware primarily as a gaming platform and for watching 360 videos but its potential is much wider. With VR you can simulate dangerous or unavailable environments which are otherwise hard and expensive to reach and maintain. NASA, for example, uses VR for staff trainings. During simulation sessions the astronauts learn how to fix instruments of the International Space Station in space.
VR is an ideal place to create, draw, build and sculpt. It lets you be a spectator or fully immerse in the environment. VR can put you in ‘life-like’ situations helping you learn faster.
Multiple levels of VR
There’s something for everyone in VR. However, the technology itself is quite fragmented so choosing the right option can be tricky. To make it easier for you I’ve broken down the modern VR tech into three categories.
Cardboard compatible (Entry-Level VR)
In VR various technologies can transport you to different virtual places. But the key difference is what you can do there. Some experiences don’t need any controllers like Google Cardboard. It’s an entry-level VR headset which encourages interest and development in VR applications.
The best part of headsets like the Google cardboard is that they work with most regular smartphones. Its affordable price makes Google cardboard a hot favourite in industries like education, advertising or media.
- Works on most modern smartphones.
- Affordable (Google cardboard starts from $15 and there are a lot of compatible ones which you can often get for free).
- The most popular VR device used in schools.
- It’s not a top-notch device and lacks some key features.
- Not stable in terms of looking around.
- It doesn’t have any controllers.
- In most experiences you’re just a spectator (you can view photos, videos or 3D objects).
High-quality smartphone based (Mid-Level VR)
- You have a controller
- The Virtual world is much more superior
- Due to low latency and high precision of motion tracking the virtual world is very stable.
What is missing is the ‘positional tracking’. This means you can’t move around the scene physically. However, the fix is coming with the future mobile standalone headsets as Google announced and Oculus reportedly will.
- You can interact with objects using a controller and move them around.
- Lots of content is already available.
- Relatively low prices - Samsung VR is available for $129 & Google Daydream for $79.
- Only works on high-end smartphones like Galaxy S6 or higher, Google Pixel.
- No positional tracking (so far).
PC Based (High-end VR)
These are the very top of the line VR experiences you can get your hands on. High-end VR systems like HTC Vive, Playstation VR, etc. have full tracking capabilities. You feel as if your real hands were embodied in the experience.
Unlike Mobile based VR, they’re wired and have to be connected to a PC or a console at all times.
- Full positional tracking. You can walk around, pick up stuff, throw it or stretch it, etc. Within the play area the possibilities are (literally) endless.
- Most immersive experiences trick your mind. You feel as if you were actually there (The Lab, Job Simulator, Robo Recall or Tilt Brush).
- Highest possible quality of virtual worlds you can design.
- Expensive. Both HTC Vive and Oculus Rift cost over $600. Additionally, it requires a high-end PC to run (which is also expensive).
- Development costs are higher as the interactions need much more fidelity.
- A cord (which attaches a headset to a PC/console).
Introduction to AR
Augmented Reality or AR for short is expected to outshine VR in terms of revenue with a market value of $83 billion by 2021. Mobile AR being the primary factor to its imminent success since it’s much easier and cheaper for a consumer to adopt than VR.
AR augments YOUR existing reality with useful information. It uses your current location and learns about your current environment. Unlike VR, it doesn’t transfer you to another, ‘virtual’ place. AR lets you scan surfaces, understand objects or play and interact with virtual elements.
For example, with the new IKEA Place app, you can preview how a new sofa or a piece of furniture looks like in your living room on your smartphone.
The AR on iOS can track face, find predefined images, rectangular shapes like a sheet of paper, process voice etc. Its possibilities are defined by two technologies: ARKit and Machine Learning (Core ML).
As per Apple's development guidelines Apps can use Apple's augmented reality (AR) technology, ARKit, to deliver immersive, engaging experiences that seamlessly blend realistic virtual objects with the real world. In AR apps, the device's camera presents a live, onscreen view of the physical world. Three-dimensional virtual objects are superimposed over this view, creating the illusion that they actually exist. The user can reorient their device to explore the objects from different angles and, if appropriate for the experience, interact with them using gestures and movement.
A similar system to ARKit is also available on some Android devices. It’s called ARCore.
Finnish startup 3DBear uses AR in its online learning application to make learning a fun experience. Kids can contribute to their school and community. Among many other things, they can create ideas for interior design, plan and produce a 3D model of their room.
There are hundreds of millions of iOS devices compatible with ARKit technology (iPhone 6S or later). Android platform will also add another 100 million this year. It’s a huge immediate market and a viable consumer/business market for AR apps.
Headset based AR
One of the AR headsets which is already available is Microsoft's HoloLens. In my opinion, it has the best mix of AR traits: mobility, space awareness, hand gestures and voice recognition. The current generation of headsets has a pretty low field of view (FOV) which is a significant drawback. Based on its high price and target it’s mainly focused on business/enterprise rather than consumers.
Microsoft calls it Mixed Reality (MR) because of its deeper integration with the surrounding world and being able to place virtual objects in between real ones. Keep in mind that you can see MR labels on devices that are basically VR.
It's exciting times for the VR/AR enthusiasts as you are spoilt for choice! There is an enormous variety of VR/AR devices available to you right now. Areas like education, media, healthcare, retailing, etc. are already noticing a broad adoption of immersive experiences (VR and AR).
I’m looking forward to how the rest of this year will unfold. There are some exciting products planned from both Google and Oculus which without a doubt will add another layer to the immersive reality experience.
The best way to understand the difference between VR and AR is by experiencing the different technologies by yourself. If you would like to experience and fully understand AR or VR, just drop me a line, and I’ll be happy to arrange a demo for you at Setapp’s HQ in Poznan, Poland.