Gaming Hardware

AR vs VR: What’s the difference?

AR vs VR. Or, to spell it out, augmented reality vs virtual reality. They both involve screens, they both involve reality (kind of), so what’s the difference, and does it even matter?

It certainly matters. Virtual reality is likely to remain a relatively small part of our day-to-day viewing, but augmented reality has the potential to change the way we work, rest and play. Like a Mars bar, but not getting smaller every year.

What is virtual reality?

Virtual reality is when all the action is generated on a screen. That could be a phone slipped into, say, Google Cardboard. Or a dedicated headset such as the Galaxy VR. Or a complete VR system such as the HTC Vive.

Normally, as in all those examples above, you view the action on a headset that encloses your vision. That way you’re not disturbed by anything that happens around you and it means you can fully immerse yourself in what’s happening.

So you can transport yourself to Mars, or deep into a video game world – a well-known example is the rollercoaster ride used to promote the Oculus Rift.

What is augmented reality?

Augmented reality adds a generated image to real-life action. The best example yet is Pokemon Go, where those friendly little virtual creatures appear on phone screens just begging to be captured.

But AR is about far more than games. What if you could see how new clothes would look on you just by staring in a mirror? Well, a full-length video display that captured your image via a built-in camera and then overlayed the clothes.

IKEA has also introduced an AR app that lets you point your phone into your spare room and work out just how wonderfully that Billy bookcase will look.

Is now the time to talk about blended and mixed reality?

You may be thinking ah, that’s all quite straightforward, thanks very much and where’s the next iPhone 8 rumours piece? But hold on a second, because there’s also blended reality and mixed reality.

Blended reality is HP’s preferred term for what happens when you use a 3D scanner (particularly the one in its own Sprout PC) to capture something from the real-world and then introduce it into the digital world – for example, a 3D scene.

Mixed reality is a more commonly used term (this time favoured by Microsoft in relation to its HoloLens), where you look at a real-world scene – usually through ‘smart’ glasses – and a believable image is added to it.

In the HoloLens demo I took part in, Microsoft used an architectural model that you could look at through the HoloLens screen. You could add virtual floors, whole sections of buildings, through the software, and then look at it via various angles through the glasses.

It wasn’t quite as impressive as the ‘demo’ Microsoft gave at E3, but that’s no excuse not to sign off with it below.

About the author

Tim Danton

Tim Danton is editor-in-chief of PC Pro magazine and has written about technology since 1999. He enjoys playing with gadgets, playing with words and playing tennis. Email

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