Virtual reality v augmented reality: Which is the future?

Fancy spending time in a better version of the real world or new, artificial worlds?
VR v AR: Which is the future?

They're yin and yang, two cutting edge technologies that could change the world, but currently involve dorky hardware and are the subject of fascination for the world's most influential people in technology.

But while AR and VR have a lot in common, they could also lead us down totally different paths in entertainment, gaming, communication and more. So which will win? Augmented reality overlays virtual 3D graphics onto our real world, augmenting the way we see our everyday life and bringing us more information. Virtual reality, however, immerses us in totally new, synthetic worlds with 360 degree views and little to no sensory input from the room your body is actually in.

So how do they actually stack up? Let's take a look.

VR v AR: The players

Magic Leap video will blow your mind

Both AR and VR are quick to find converts, but the two complementary yet contradictory visions of the future also tend to put people into two camps.

Microsoft was one of the early players to invest heavily in AR with HoloLens and its ecosystem. The Redmond company continues to work with the likes of NASA and other companies, like car manufacturers, to find ways to implement AR into everyday life in industry.

One of the biggest players in tech is Apple, and the Cupertino company has also found itself enamored with AR, even though it is yet to show a product. Sure, it's interested in VR and thinks it could go somewhere, but the thing that really gets them excited is AR. Back in 2016, CEO Tim Cook called it a "core technology," saying that he expects it to be a big technology, bigger than VR, in the future. "Virtual reality sort of encloses and immerses the person into an experience that can be really cool," Cook said, "but probably has a lower commercial interest over time. Less people will be interested in that."

Read this: Everything you need to know about Microsoft HoloLens

There's also Snap, which has gradually dipped its toes in AR with filters and, as speculated, perhaps upcoming pair of smartglasses. However, while Apple and Microsoft are the big names in AR right now, the augmented reality tech that has the industry going nuts (and throwing cash at) is Magic Leap.

Company CEO Rony Abovitz is a frequent critic of VR as a way forward in both entertainment and gaming, going so far as to call it dangerous. In an Ask Me Anything on Reddit, Abovitz discussed the differences between VR and AR, mostly that VR headsets immerse users in an artificial world and AR incorporated objects and environments from the real world.

"There are a class of devices (see-through and non-see-through) called stereoscopic 3D," he said. "We at Magic Leap believe these inputs into the eye-brain system are incorrect and can cause a spectrum of temporary and/or permanent neurologic deficits."

Virtual reality versus augmented reality: Which is the future?

"Our philosophy as a company (and my personal view) is to 'leave no footprints' in the brain. The brain is very neuroplastic and there is no doubt that near-eye stereoscopic 3D systems have the potential to cause neurologic change."

Now that Palmer Lucky has left Oculus, the biggest public cheerleader of VR is Mark Zuckerberg, who purchased Oculus for $2 billion for Facebook. "We're working on VR because I think it's the next major computing and communication platform after phones," he said in 2016. "We'll have the power to share our full sensory and emotional experience with people wherever we'd like."

Read this: Meet Apple's AR dream team

Zuckerberg believes in VR so much that he wants to invest $3 billion to get the technology where it needs to be, because he definitely doesn't think it's good enough now. While Zuck is all in on VR and the amount to spend on it, he's a little less enthused by AR, only mentioning that he expects it to go mainstream around 2022 because the technology just isn't there yet.

Google seems to be taking the same path. The company, right now, is all in on developing its Daydream VR platform. It wanted to make VR extremely accessible with Cardboard, but Daydream's goal is a little grander: to make mobile VR great. It started with the View headset, and it'll continue with standalone headsets from the likes of HTC Vive and Lenovo, as well as technologies to make desktop-quality graphics a signature of mobile VR. Its Project Tango AR platform will remain on smartphones and tablets for the time being, but there's plenty of potential to bring it to headsets and smartglasses in the future.

VR v AR: The experience

HTC Vive review

AR is exciting but we don't have many ways to experience it. Google Glass was underwhelming, HoloLens has field of vision problems (and still hasn't launched in a consumer capacity), Snap has filters, Magic Leap is silent, and the rest of it is done on our phone, like Pokemon Go or Google's Project Tango. Plus, nobody has come close to building AR into glasses we'd actually wear on a day-to-day basis.

Like voice-controlled tech, AR has plenty of pop culture inspiration but no one will get on board until it works every time, all the time. Oh, and until it actually looks cool. Of the two technologies, AR is the one that we are supposed to use on our average day, venturing out of the house in public in front of other people.

VR, on the other hand, is an experience that's a little easier to understand. You put on a headset and get transported to another world, with two of your senses cut off from reality, tricking your mind into thinking you're someplace you're not. Now, the hardware isn't perfect just yet. There needs to be higher resolution displays, better latency, more immersive ways to feel your VR content and eye-tracking, which can be used to display better graphics and make AI characters in virtual worlds treat you like a person in the real world would.

Read this: The race to mixed reality

Yes, we've seen and heard stories of folks taking Samsung Gear VR onto the train, but let's face it: VR has begun life as an at-home gaming peripheral. For that user, it can be a pretty magical thing right now.

The British Museum's first VR exhibit

While AR will eventually be neatly tucked into the sides of your sports sunnies, VR is always going to have to enclose your eyes and ears with lenses, displays and headphones to work.

AR glasses will come with some social etiquette guidelines, as companies will have to figure out ways to make sure people realize you're connected while looking them (kind of like Spectacles' light). That was one of the major public concerns with Google Glass. VR can't disappear as easily as AR glasses though, since it quickly becomes obvious that someone is 'plugging in' to a virtual world for a session. However, there are things like Windows Mixed Reality upcoming headsets, which will use pass-through cameras to see the real world in addition to the virtual.

In general, AR specs are likely to be lighter and more comfortable, letting you combine the real world with the virtual, while VR headsets are bigger, bulkier and more immersive, cutting you off from reality.

As for prices, it's all a big crapshoot right now. You can get a VR headset for as low as $15, and you can get premium experiences like PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift or HTC Vive from $399 to $799. Good luck trying to get in on AR though, with HoloLens dev kits running at a whopping $3,000.

VR v AR: The potential

Virtual reality versus augmented reality: Which is the future?

For either VR or AR to get mass market appeal, it needs to resonate not only to early adopters, but regular folks who just want to play some games or check their email. But what about the other uses of VR and AR? How do they fit into our world as a whole?

Both VR and AR have been touted as one of the keys to training medical students by replacing textbooks. Medical students can use either to work on digital cadavers or dummies that can easily, and cheaply, be reset for constant reuse by hundreds or thousands of students. Additionally, VR can be used to create digital labs that allows students to get the hands-on experience they need without the cost associated with physical labs.

VR can also be used for emotional needs. You can use VR to distract someone from pain, but you can also use it to create empathy, putting people in situations that they might not be familiar with. On top of that, you can use it to recreate your memories, though that comes with a whole series of ethical questions humanity might not be ready for.

Read this: VR in the Age of Trump

And of course, we've also seen both VR and AR in projects such as First Life at the Natural History Museum, Parthenon sculptures and Bronze Age exhibitions at the British Museum. Public spaces are only beginning to explore how the technology can be used to improve experiences. Look no further than Disney, who is interested in bringing AR experiences to its theme parks.


The potential future of AR, however, is all about augmentation. The technology can help keep hands free, so that workers can have the benefit of additional, and useful, information as they work. Imagine construction or factory workers have instant access to blueprints in their eyesight as they look at the construction site. Or NASA engineers and astronauts who see important schematics laid on top of critical mission systems.

Then there are uses we've barely thought about yet. For instance, UC Berkeley is working on a way to use AR as a way to communicate with robots. The problem with machines right now is that we have to turn toward secondary screens to get all our information. It's all tucked away in apps and phones and computers. But what if anyone could look at a Roomba or a drone and instantly see its battery level, current task, and where it's going next? Wouldn't that solve a whole bunch of problems people have with automation and robots?

VR v AR: Which is the future?

Virtual reality versus augmented reality: Which is the future?

I can't help you with that, Dave. And that's because this really comes down to what humanity wants on a whole. Do they want a future based in, well, reality, gaining additional, and useful, information to make their daily lives easier? Or do they want a constructed, artificial reality that is cut off from what we now refer to as reality.

It's deep stuff, but it's the fundamental divide between AR and VR, and what makes their yin and yang so interesting to ponder. The solution, however, may be explained by one thing: We're social creatures. Currently, AR seems to be better equipped to handle the social needs of humans, largely because it's augmenting our current world, not trying to replace it.

This is why people working in VR, like Facebook, are working so hard to make VR more social. Google's Daydream platform allows you to watch videos together in virtual reality, for example. Facebook recently launched its Spaces app, an attempt to make it fun to hang out with your friends in VR.

What is possible is that each of them better defines its role. AR could turn into an everyday help for the common person, helping them make better decisions about food, transportation, people and more. VR, on the other hand, could turn into an entertainment activity, whether it be gaming or experiencing great storytelling. In that case, well, the answer to which tech is the future would be both.


7 Comments

  • Kutastha says:

    I'm personally more excited for Magic Leap-style AR than I am for VR. I'd rather not be entirely consumed by a virtual world. Ironically enough, being utterly enveloped in a fabricated environment would quickly take me out of the experience because I'd feel like I was wasting my time. At least with AR, I'd have some connection with the natural world and be able to assess what was going on. The promise of advanced AR (i.e. high-res, 3D, virtual objects placed seamlessly in the world) will make for amazing experiences whether we're talking about movies, gaming, social media or for professional use. And I think that we'll find that aside from hardcore gamers, VR will generally be something that people will try for a bit and then put down in lieu of something more reality-friendly.

    • Dustin says:

      This comment. It perfectly captures everything I've been feeling about VR but just couldn't convey in words 

  • Gregory says:

    Thanks for this usefull comparaison. I think it's impossible to choose one or the other because VR and AR will merge at some point (I don't know when). Both technologies use 3D models and "recreate" worlds. I think, in 10 or 20 years, we will create a twin virtual copy of earth and we use it as our "real" world. Of course, it will be really difficult to feel what will be real :)

  • Mike20016 says:

    The short answer is: both.

    Eventually they'll be incorporated into one device. And the image will probably be projected by similar technology to Magic Leap's, via direct retina-projection displays. 

  • benjaminhobbs says:

    The future shall have Augmented Virtual Reality, Virtual Reality, & Augmented Reality. We know exactly what the two are, but nobody knows about Augmented Virtual Reality. I have not read about it anywhere, I just thought of it, and it's possible someone already has thought of it. So what is Augmented Virtual Reality.  Well imagine having stereoscopic forward facing cameras on your virtual reality headset. This would change gaming for sure, but it would also have very useful commercial applications. First I'll mention gaming. Imagine playing Mortal Kombat outside in a big field, you are facing a virtual enemy who appears to be in your natural environment. You reach forward and rip the beating heart out of your opponent, gross... BUT COOL!... Now the commercial element - various sensors could simulate impact. Imagine a real estate agent walking someone through an empty house, and that person is wearing an augmented headset that showcases what the home would like with furniture like there, or new furniture already in the house. This technology is of the future, but not that far off. My ideas are worth millions, and I have many. If you want to own them, find me. I have a price.

  • tartanski says:

    yes the technologies will most likely merge to an extentin the future but the fact is today that they are both tools to create Immersive experiences. AR is usually mobile by its nature, so has limited computing power and its not as easy to make precise tracking of hands as with a fixed VR set up, and VR has access to more computing power and arguably the ecosystem of suppliers and content makers is richer and more mature. Developers need to make best use of the respective strengths of each tool set. As mentioned above both technologies need computer generated 3D models to work, I think the technology developments in this field will really change things, just have a look at lytro, and what they can do already with light fields. Realtime capture and streaming of physical environments will come to VR and AR. 

  • bja says:

    Time to market has been the key for AR, as the so called AR solutions have not reached (along with the specific space of use). As for VR, the market is bit more focused eg. gaming.

    This also is the competition of  two or three software giants. Google/Facebook. ASUS has improved its solution and looks promising for VR. I am looking at Asian companies who will jump into producing a merged wareable.

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