There’s been a deluge of articles on gaming websites recently about devices that promise to enhance or fully replace our current — and apparently unfulfilling — reality. Microsoft announced that the initial development kits for its HoloLens augmented reality headset ship at the end of this month. Meanwhile, HTC has opened up preorders for its Vive virtual reality headset (shipping in April) and sent a handful of lucky journalists an early version of the device to play around with at home. And of course $2 billion startup Oculus VR, the company that Kickstarted the resurgence in virtual reality, is finally launching the commercial version of its Rift headset on March 28.
It’s all a bit overwhelming, especially if your last experience with virtual reality was watching The Lawnmower Man in theaters.
So what exactly are virtual reality and augmented reality, and how do they differ? We’re here to help explain.
What’s Virtual Reality?
Put simply, virtual reality aims to trick your brain into believing it’s somewhere it’s not. This is done by wearing a headset that tracks head movement and obscures all outside vision. The virtual world presented to you via the headset is a full 360-degree experience; you can look in any direction and maintain the illusion. Often, the experience is augmented with stereo headphones and motion controls, so that your hand movements translate into virtual actions on-screen.
Game developers are currently planning to plant early VR adopters inside a spaceship cockpit, inside the head of an astronaut floating through a ruined space station, and hundreds of other breathtaking locations.
Despite the flurry of VR activity in 2016, the concept itself is not new. It’s been a science fiction dream for decades, particularly in the 1990s, where VR featured prominently in TV shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and VR.5 and in movies like Virtuosity, eXistenZ, and the aforementioned The Lawnmower Man.
But the actual experience of virtual reality in the 1990s did not match up to the pop-culture promise, as anyone who dropped $5 on the mediocre, nauseating Sega VR in arcades can tell you.
That nausea factor has been the biggest blocker to mainstream VR acceptance. Without crisp HD visuals and hyper-accurate head tracking, the brain sniffs out the illusion and triggers the same sort of motion sickness many people feel when trying to read in a moving vehicle.
It’s only recently that engineers have claimed that they’ve overcome the technical hurdles required to make VR a seamless — and vomit-free — experience. We’ll see in the next few months whether they’ve been able to pull it off.
Okay, So What’s Augmented Reality?
Augmented reality takes your everyday, run-of-the-mill reality and amps it up to 11 with additional information. This could be as utilitarian as overlaying map directions on your car windshield as you’re driving or as fantastical as opening a portal to a Minecraft world in your living room wall.
AR has already existed in different forms for years. Think of the phone app that lets you view constellations as you point it at the night sky, or even of the glowing first down marker in Sunday NFL games. But the movement now is to wearable AR: a device that overlays your vision like a pair of glasses and is omnipresent as you go about daily life.
The purported benefit of wearable AR is that, unlike VR, you don’t need to close out the outside world to use it. Adherents see it as a tool that could easily become as ubiquitous and necessary as our current smartphones, with applications ranging from doctors performing surgery or plumbers fixing a pipe.
The downside is that it’s still for the moment a solitary experience. This is partly what damned the first iteration of Google Glass: People never knew what was occupying a Glass user’s attention at any moment. Were they actually engaged in the conversation, or watching a cat video?
But “old-fashioned” contrarians make the same arguments today about smartphones, as we surreptitiously check for text messages during a meeting or a dinner date. Maybe the social faux pas of a miniature screen imprinted on your eyeball will fade just as quickly if AR wearables gain widespread support. We’ll find out as devices like the HoloLens and the second iteration of Google Glass make their way into consumer hands.