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What's the difference between augmented reality and virtual reality?

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Q:

What's the difference between augmented reality and virtual reality?

A:

In some ways, virtual reality and augmented reality are a lot alike. However, they are not the same thing.

Virtual reality generally refers to technologies that replace or eclipse the real senses. On the other hand, augmented reality complements those senses, adding an artificial component, but not replacing the natural environment.

Practically speaking, most implementations of both virtual reality and augmented reality are based on the human field of vision. That said, most implementations of virtual reality, like Oculus Rift, entirely take away the natural field of vision and replace it with an artificial one. By contrast, most implementations of augmented reality simply superimpose some artificial piece of a range of vision on top of the viewer’s own natural field of vision.

Augmented reality has been useful in retail, in transportation, and in other fields, as a way to enhance services and offer neat new features to consumers. In many cases, simple augmented reality visuals can be added to a sign or billboard, or some other physical interface, to give a user more information or help provide additional functionality for that interface.

Virtual reality does something different – it aims to “take the viewer out of” the natural environment, and put them somewhere else, in a virtual space. The potential of this technology has intrigued people for decades, but the actual use of virtual reality seems limited to entertainment and some more obscure uses. Part of the issue may be that some users are inherently less comfortable replacing their field of vision than adding to it with augmented reality visuals, or that having an artificial field of vision limited to a television, smartphone or computer screen seems more intuitive to users than putting on a pair of virtual reality glasses.

Consider the use of both augmented reality and virtual reality in medicine: virtual reality can be useful for the purposes of training, telemedicine, and patient education, but so can augmented reality. Both can help patients to get better oriented toward their care, and both can improve the work of clinicians by offering them more on-demand data. It’s a question of specifically how to create an interface that works for the user and offers optimal potential for development.

The use of both augmented reality and virtual reality continues to evolve as companies start to understand the power of new media and new technologies to change user interactions, Considering these new changes and types of progress will also show how augmented reality is different from virtual reality on a fundamental level, and which one will offer the most benefit in a particular use case.

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Written by Justin Stoltzfus
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Justin Stoltzfus is a freelance writer for various Web and print publications. His work has appeared in online magazines including Preservation Online, a project of the National Historic Trust, and many other venues.
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