February 3, 2022
Virtual experiences have come a long way in recent times. VR technologies that would have literally cost hundreds of thousands of dollars just a decade ago, can be bought by anyone today for just a few hundred bucks. Due to Moore’s Law, technology is becoming more efficient, smaller, and cheaper, at an accelerating rate. This pace of progress is skyrocketing the development of VR, with the hype of the metaverse now looming eagerly on the horizon. But if you’re as confused as alphabetti spaghetti over the differences between VR, AR, MR, XR and the metaverse, then worry not, we’ll cover each in a nutshell here.
Technically speaking any kind of realistic simulation of reality constitutes a form of virtual reality. For example, stereo headphones provide a high-fidelity virtual experience that we’re all familiar with. However, whenever the term VR is used today, it pretty much relates to two specific aspects of virtual experiences that create an exceptionally strong immersive experience.
The first aspect is the use of stereoscopic 3D view from a 1st person perspective across a wide field of view.
The second is a little more nuanced, but equally powerful. It involves the perceived environment being seamlessly adjusted to accommodate changes in your viewing direction and location. Going a step further this can also include adaptive virtual representations of your own body (typically hands).
Together this means that you will experience the virtual world in a very similar way to how we perceive real-world experiences. Along with stereo sound, this convinces the brain that the virtual is actually surprisingly realistic – sometimes almost too realistic!
With VR the emphasis is very much on ‘virtual’, as you are completely cut-off visually from the real-world around you. With AR, the goal is to use virtual reality to enhance or morph actual reality, by blending both into a singular experience. Here the emphasis is on ‘augmented’, meaning you perceive reality in a way that goes beyond normal experiences. A simple example would be going to play laser tag, but when you see your opponents, you see realistic looking aliens, instead of the humans that are actually there.
Much the same as VR, stereo 3D and adaptive viewpoints are essential ingredients of AR. In terms of commercial products, AR is still very much in its infancy. Microsoft’s Hololens has been leading the way, but is still very much a limited form of what this type of experience promises to become.
One common misunderstanding is that devices like ‘smartglasses’ (e.g. Google Glass), are also AR. In fact, this form of tech only delivers flat displays that do not adapt to changes in view. Neither AR nor VR, these are known as yet another acronym – HUD (Heads-Up Display).
Fortunately, our third acronym on the list is now very easy to explain. MR is simply a marketing spin on AR. This was largely driven by Hololens and Magic Leap. Hence AR and MR are both used interchangeably. Although AR has been around for over a decade, the term mixed reality is likely simpler for the everyday person to understand.
A further clarification is that VR and AR/MR can be collectively referred to as ‘immersive media’.
XR is also relatively straight-forward. It basically refers to technology that can switch between VR and AR/MR. Basically this term came about to save companies having to describe their products as virtual reality and augmented reality devices. Enough said.
You’ve likely heard the term ‘metaverse’ being bounced around due to Meta investing some serious marketing dollars into hyping up the next evolution in virtual experiences. At this stage it’s still more of a concept born out of science fiction, than an actual experience. As such, it’s also a concept that there’s not yet a clear consensus on.
At the simplest level the metaverse takes VR (virtual metaverse) and/or AR (augmented metaverse), and applies them to a persistent virtual environment that exists independently, and is shared by many people.
An analogy for this is the game World of Warcraft, where millions of people play quests in a fantasy landscape that carries on in real-time, even when you are not playing. The metaverse could also be more of a unified network of virtual worlds, a little like connecting all multiplayer games into one ecosystem.
At the other end of the spectrum the metaverse could become an embodiment of all virtual experiences within a single and cohesive world. It could also contain its own socio-cultural norms, economy and political systems, as a parallel, yet independently functioning virtual universe.
In this sense the metaverse isn’t fundamentally about technology, instead it’s about how the human race will transform its relationship with technology.
Boiled down here are the essential definitions.
VR – fully simulated experiences that are highly immersive
AR – real-world experiences enhanced by immersive simulations
MR – an interchangeable term for AR
XR – technologies which can switch between VR and AR
Metaverse – VR and AR/MR experiences within a shared and persistent virtual universe
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