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In English, Please: Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Reality

Written by: Lily Choi

It seems like the more technology advances, so too does its terminology become less and less user-friendly. New developments in VR and the onslaught of innovations like the Apple Vision Pro have turned a concept the general public once solely associated with gaming into a confused bombardment of tech-jargon (micro-macro-this, volumetric-that, God save the plebians!). So if you’re not an engineer (or an Apple employee reading off a script), here’s a comprehensive run down of the three major up-and-coming terms that are marking the beginning of a new digital era: Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Reality (MR).

Virtual Reality – The Old Dog With New Tricks

VR is probably the more familiar term amongst the three, and the one most closely associated with the gaming industry. You know it from the decade-old Oculus Rift gear (that even the non-gamers know of as long as they were in the vicinity of at least one middle-schooler in 2013). You know it from the sci-fi books, the arcade simulators, the random shopping mall events in which you judged (heavily) the strangers walking around with a giant plastic block attached to their faces at the behest of an overexcited audience. What virtual reality is—and what the subsequent goofy VR tech does—is immerse the user in a completely simulated environment, disconnected from the physical world. Aside from playing horror games in life-threatening clarity, you can walk on a beach, stick a flag on the moon’s surface, or go scuba-diving in the Mediterranean, all while standing in your own room. And no, you can’t escape the headset.

Augmented Reality – For the Snapchat Addicts

Ironically enough, though the term ‘augmented reality’ seems daunting and foreign to the general populace, most people with a phone have likely experienced their fair share of AR on a daily basis. We know it best in the form of Snapchat and Instagram filters, and now, TikTok, too. Unlike VR, AR doesn’t whisk you away to far-off lands, but rather brings the magic to you. From puppy filters, animated video effects telling you which Disney princess you are, to furniture simulation apps that help you choose whether to get blue or green curtains, AR takes your real-life environment and alters it with virtual elements rather than creating an entirely new simulated environment from scratch. And the big plus: the only thing you need is your phone, which makes AR much more accessible to the masses.

Mixed Reality – The Lovechild

Now, for the math. It’s a simple equation, really. I’ll even give you the answer: VR + AR = MR! Mixed reality combines elements of both VR and AR, allowing digital content to interact with and respond to the real world in real time. With MR, you can, for example, wear a headset and see and interact with virtual creatures in your living room, or observe digital information that appears to be anchored to specific objects in your real environment. Simply put, the world is your oyster, but your desk can still be just your desk.

The Complete Family

To summarize: VR isolates you from the physical world, placing you entirely in a virtual environment. AR, on the other hand, enhances your perception of reality by overlaying digital elements onto it. Finally, MR combines virtual and real elements, enabling them to interact seamlessly within your surroundings. Each of these technologies offers distinct experiences, catering to different preferences and use cases. But, complex as they are, one thing’s for certain—you won’t have to look up the word ‘volumetric’ ever again.