Virtual / Augmented Reality 101: What is AR/VR?

Virtual / Augmented Reality 101: What is AR/VR?

Troy Cogburn

Chief Technology Evangelist

March 3, 2022

6 Minutes

One of the most talked-about areas of technology is the augmentation of the real world. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are two types of immersive technologies that create new virtual worlds or enhance the physical world we live in. However, these two technologies have some fundamental differences in their applications and modes of operation.

vr headset and other vr devices with an ar device infographic

What is virtual reality (VR)?

If you think of a virtual world where you can move about and have lifelike experiences, chances are you will associate this with VR.

When using virtual reality, a person wears a virtual reality headset, sometimes with added goggles. The virtual reality headsets contain several motion sensors, including an accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, and proximity sensor. These sensors feed data back into the game or other virtual world to adjust play and allow more realistic interaction within the player scenario.

Emerging areas in VR technology work to enhance the sensory experience and build upon the total immersion expected by modern VR gamers and other VR users.

What innovations make up virtual reality systems?

Spatial audio:

Spatial audio is part of the immersive technology that takes ‘surround sound’ to whole new levels adding a 360-degree sound experience to add depth to the VR experience.

Haptic sensors and tracking gloves:

Haptic gloves have sensors that feed data back to the VR software to imitate feel and touch within the game scenario. A new enhanced haptic glove is in development, enabling the wearer to feel grasping sensations, not just touch. 

Virtual controller:

Haptic glove designers are working to remove the need for handheld controllers to create more realistic interactions with the user’s hand; the haptic glove controlling the gameplay uses a virtual controller.

What is augmented reality (AR)?

Augmented reality made headlines with the mobile app Pokémon Go. As the app players held up their mobile phones as they walked around their locality, Pokémon characters would appear in their phone view; the characters were overlaid onto the real-world locations. This overlay of images onto the real world gives ‘augmented reality’ its name.

Unlike VR, AR does not typically use a headset, although smart glasses are AR-enabled. Most mobile phones have at least basic AR support. Augmented reality is achieved through a mix of hardware and software. The hardware uses sensors and gyroscopes to render images. Software frameworks such as ARCore (Google Android Phones) and ARKit (Apple iPhone) deliver computer vision that performs AR on a mobile device.

AR smart glasses have been a mixed success. They add images, information, and even video onto the image seen through a pair of glasses to create a mixed reality incorporating virtual objects with physical objects. Apple is working on a sleeker version of AR smart glasses with an expected release date sometime in 2025. The glasses will be high-performance, using high-resolution micro-OLED displays with up to 3,000 pixels per inch for an immersive viewing experience

5G is widely seen as a boost for both AR and VR, given that 5G networks essentially transcend the impediments to the technology associated with 4G. The increased speed and reliability promised by 5G should go a long way toward increasing the adoption of both augmented and virtual reality devices and applications across a wider span of use cases.

What are some examples of augmented and virtual reality technology use cases?

An example of a VR use case outside of gaming is in the teaching of surgery. Solutions such as FundamentalVR use haptic gloves to enhance surgical education allowing learners to complete surgical tasks using a VR orthopedic surgery platform. The VR can immerse the learner by using the same sounds, tasks, and feelings that an orthopedic surgeon experiences during a real-life procedure.

SRI International has developed “Augmented Reality Binoculars” for military use. The AR binoculars allow objects of interest to be tagged and labeled, with tagged locations being shared between multiple AR devices.

AR technology is widely used in marketing to sell everything from cars to clothes. One of the best-known AR marketing apps is the IKEA AR app. The IKEA app lets you place a true-to-scale 3D product within the context of the room it will be placed in. That way, you can see if the product works in the virtual space before buying it.

The Virtual World: AR, VR, and the Metaverse

The metaverse is a virtual environment where people can interact with each other and the virtual worlds around them. The metaverse is based on an interwoven fabric of 3D rendered worlds. The metaverse is achieved through various technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), 5G, and AR/VR. How the metaverse plays out will depend on its designers and the organizations behind a given metaverse space or enclave. However, VR and AR will likely be used in symbiosis to generate these meta worlds.

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