The promise of immersive virtual worlds—digitally rendered places where the reality we know can be recreated however we desire—is as enticing as it has been long coming. The concept has been around in science-fiction for decades in books (Neuromancer, Snow Crash), TV (Doctor Who, Star Trek), and movies (The Matrix, Johnny Mnemonic). However, practical use and application of “Virtual Reality” has always seemed to be just over the horizon, but has never achieved widespread adaption.
Recently, though, with improvements in computer speeds, wearable screens, and the popular acceptance of wearable computer technology, creating immersive computer generated realities is finally arriving.
The three terms most often used to refer to the idea of adding a digitally rendered layer on reality are VR (Virtual Reality), AR (Augmented Reality), and MR (Mixed Reality). Although all three techniques present a computer created experience shown from the participant’s point-of-view, they do so in unique ways.
Virtual Reality (VR)
VR is a fully immersive experience from the participants point-of-view. The outside world is completely obscured and replaced with a computer rendered world (fig. 1). This world can be made as real as possible or as unreal as desired, allowing the user to walk around and engage with solid objects or fly and walk through walls. The physics of this world are completely controlled by the computer.
Currently, VR requires an eye-ware device to be worn, placing a screen in front of the viewer and blocking any external light. For VR, this takes the form of large goggle like devices that will completely obscure the participants field of view, replacing it with the computer simulated view.
In the future, though, these devises will be reduced in size, and might only need to be as large as a pair of swimming goggles or even contact lenses. On the fringe is also the possibility that virtual reality can be feed directly into the brain and bypass the optic nerve or be created within a room, where the viewer does not have to use any invasive technology.
Augmented Reality (AR)
AR places a digitally rendered layer over the live experience of the participants point-of-view onto which the computer adds an experience (fig. 2).
AR can use hand held digital devices with front facing cameras, such as mobile phones and tablets. The camera will take in the surrounding live scene, and then place the virtual layer on top in real-time. This makes it easy to create AR on commonly used products.
However, like VR, AR can also make use of eye-ware devices to create a more immersive experience, but one that does not require anything as bulky or invasive as VR headsets.
Mixed Reality (MR)
MR takes AR one step further by detecting the participant’s physical environment and allowing the computer generated reality to interact with that environment (fig. 3). Thus, rather than only being able to sit on top of a chair, as with AR, an MR environment can create objects that move around and behind the chair.
MR differs from AR in that it requires a camera enabled device that can also detect the physical environment. Since this requires extra hardware, most commonly available devices are not candidates for MR apps.
Because of their similarity, it is likely that the concepts of AR and MR will soon be collapsed into one concept, with people generally referring to AR for both.