You’re probably familiar with the term “virtual reality” (VR). It’s been around a while now, and most people have at least a dim idea of what it is. You may or may not also have heard of “augmented reality” (AR), a related concept.
Both are technologies that alter the way a person perceives the physical environment, through the use of computer-generated imagery and sounds. Both have revolutionary implications for everything from science and medicine to entertainment and education to the military, business and manufacturing.
Virtual reality is technology that uses computer-generated images and sound to allow a user to experience a completely new, artificially created environment. Virtual reality is what is called “immersive”—the user wears goggles that involve the whole visual field and headphones that shut out the sounds of the real world and provide virtual ones to create the sensation of a different reality.
The new reality can be realistic or totally imaginary. Readers of a certain age may recall the “Holodeck” on Star Trek: The Next Generation. That’s virtual reality.
But VR is not just the stuff of science fiction. Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR are two VR products currently available to the mass consumer market, and over 1 million people used the Gear VR in the single month of April 2016.
Augmented reality uses the same types of technology as VR, but unlike VR, it is not an immersion in another reality, but the blending of virtual reality and real life. AR layers computer enhancements over an existing reality.
AR uses smartphones or tablets as viewers and imposes a virtual image layer on the actual existing landscape. (For example, with the right app, students can view their classroom through their phones and suddenly the kids look like Yoda and Darth Vader.)
Last summer’s Pokémon Go craze is an example of an AR game. It allowed players to “see” and capture the imaginary characters in their own neighborhoods as they viewed their real surroundings through their phones.
Main Differences Between VR and AR
Both VR and AR alter a user’s perception of their environment. They use the same types of technology, but to differing degrees. Both require some sort of medium to view computer-generated images and hear sounds.
The main differences are that VR creates a completely new, computer-generated reality without reference to the actual environment in which the user exists. The user is completely immersed in the new environment and detached from their real one. (Currently this is done through the senses of sight and sound, but a cutting-edge technology being experimented with now to enhance VR—“haptics”—also involves the sense of touch. More on that in our next blog post.)
On the other hand, AR uses real life as its base, and then enhances it. It only provides a limited range of view (e.g., the smartphone or tablet screen) and so requires fewer resources.
Here’s a handy formula to help put it all in perspective:
Augmented reality = 25% virtual + 75% real
Virtual reality = 75% virtual + 25% real
(At the risk of muddying the waters even more, Microsoft is now marketing its HoloLens hologram generator as “mixed reality,” falling somewhere between virtual and augmented reality. The video at their official site demonstrates how the product “brings holograms into your real world” with mind-blowing applications for collaborative design, education and training, research, entertainment, and more.)
Business Applications of VR and AR
Although currently VR and AR are mostly used for entertainment, both have huge implications for business and manufacturing.
Forbes predicts that AR and VR will affect every aspect of business in the coming years. “First you had personal computers, then the Internet, and then you had mobile. VR will be next.”*
AR is already being used for interactive marketing (e.g., consumers can view their cereal box through their phone and shoot little projectiles at targets on the actual box while they munch on breakfast).
VR will allow engineers and designers to interact with their prototypes in a realistic way before they execute them. Imagine the savings in being able to set up and test your assembly line virtually—to spot any potential weaknesses, bottlenecks in the workflows or other inefficiencies—all before any expensive installations and before any physical work actually begins.
Then there’s the training of employees in a safe yet realistic simulated environment before they enter potentially dangerous situations. There are VR-based meetings, presentations, lifelike sales and consumer product demos, and so on.
It’s a safe bet we are only scratching the surface here. VR and AR will soon be used to transform business and manufacturing in ways we can’t even imagine—yet.
* “How Virtual Reality Will Impact Businesses In The Next Five Years”. Forbes Technology Council, Jul 22, 2016.