VR vs AR vs MR – What’s the Difference?

Man wearing VR headset with words, XR, VR, MR and AR around him.

If there’s one thing the tech world loves, it’s acronyms. We like to abbreviate complex terms into a few short letters; it’s memorable and saves on breath. It can also be confusing. The world of virtual reality is no exception. Along with terms such as FoV (field of vision) and 6DoF (6 degrees of freedom), are the acronyms VR, AR, and MR. These represent three similar-yet-different technologies in what is known as extended reality or ‘XR’. The abbreviations stand for virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality. In this post, we’ll look at what each one means and how they differ.

VR – Virtual Reality

Virtual reality invites us to suspend our disbelief as we enter another world.

Beat Saber (Above) is a popular gaming example of VR

Perhaps the most commonly used term is VR. There are plenty of virtual reality headsets on the market, and we’ve reviewed many of the top ones. From the fantastic PlayStation VR to the mobile-based Samsung Gear VR, these headsets aim to create an immersive environment that fools our senses. The environments they present to us are entirely virtual; computers, mobile phones, or consoles create a virtual world for us. Virtual reality invites us to suspend our disbelief as we enter another world. Usually, movements the user makes while wearing a VR headset are translated into the digital space we’re exploring, and as many senses as possible are engaged.

AR – Augmented Reality

Essentially, augmented reality adds a virtual layer over the real world.

AR is a technology that has seen a recent surge in popularity. Games such as Pokémon Go are an excellent example of how AR works. Essentially, augmented reality adds a virtual layer over the real world. In the case of Pokémon Go, your smartphone’s camera captures your live environment and then overlays the digital creatures on top of that. However, it differs from mixed reality as the digital content in AR does not fully interact with the physical elements of the environment. Actions in the real world do not impact the digital overlay.

MR – Mixed Reality

Digital content is layered over the real world, yet in this instance, it’s more closely anchored to physical objects

Microsoft 'MR' HoloLens - Man using headset at desk with speaker.
Microsoft HoloLens is an example of an ‘MR’ headset.

As a relatively new concept, MR is seeing some success. A variety of Windows-based headsets have been released or announced, priced similarly to mid-range VR headsets. Microsoft’s Hololens is an impressive example of a mixed reality headset, however, it’s currently priced only for business users and developers at over $3k. Augmented reality is yet to reach its full potential, but MR takes the concept of AR a step further. Digital content is layered over the real world, yet in this instance, it’s more closely anchored to physical objects. The computer-generated elements are more aware of the physical elements, and can, therefore, interact with them. It is in many respects a combination of both VR and AR.

Final Thoughts

As it stands, none of these technologies has quite matured. They’re all still being developed, with new devices and software being worked on constantly. So far, we’ve seen a good deal of VR and AR content, but MR has started to impress over the last 18 months. There are certainly exciting times ahead in this field. These terms are often thrown around interchangeably, but it’s important for us to distinguish between each one.

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