Unfolding the Past into the Future: AR, VR, MR…what’s the difference?

Emily Smith on July 2, 2017. Tags: , , , , , ,

Virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality. All these terms give us different and strange ideas about how are we going to interact with the machines, and with each other in the future.
The not so distant future?

The concept of people having immersive and multi-sensorial experiences is actually older than we usually think. Therefore, to understand what we have today, let’s take a look at what we had a few decades ago.

Sensorama black and white photo


Back in the 1950’s, Morton Heilig (1), who is considered the father of Virtual Reality (VR), developed the Sensorama – the foundation stone of the enormous variety of technologies that we have today. Sensorama was basically a box (or a small theatre) into which you could stick your head, watch a movie and have your senses stimulated. It was “the cinema of the future”, in which 3D stereoscopic images were projected in a wide-angle view. There was stereo sound, the seats vibrated and wind blew, providing an immersive experience. At this point, we had the concept created, or at least came to life.

The next big milestone came in 1968, when Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull created the world’s first VR and augmented reality (AR) head-mounted display (2), called The Sword of Damocles. For sure it was a primitive device. It was so heavy that it had to be suspended from the ceiling to be used.

The Sword of Damocles black and white photo

The Sword of Damocles

In the 80’s, virtual reality still seemed to be reserved for a distant future. In 1982, Hollywood released the classic movie Tron, brilliantly depicting and boosting people’s imagination of that futuristic technology.

In the 90’s, personal computers started to become cheaper, and for the very first time, virtual reality was used in the game industry. By the way, it was not only used, but it boomed. Arcades and even small devices like the Nintendo Virtual Boy were available. Had the future arrived at this point? Not yet.

Movie still of Tron




In the 2000’s the technology started to gain variations and all these acronyms, VR, AR, MR, and such began to confuse customers. Let’s start to untie these knots.

Probably the primary cause of confusion lies between what is virtual reality (VR) and what is augmented reality (AR). We could say that they are in the same box. They are completely different, and yet, they have some aspects in common.

At the simplest level, virtual reality offers immersive experiences to its users. The purpose is to make people feel and see themselves interacting with places that don’t exist, transporting them to another reality generated by computers – in other words, you are not experiencing something in the real world. To do that, you need to be wearing glasses like the Samsung Gear VR (4) or the Oculus Rift (5).

On the other hand, augmented reality (AR) brings digital objects or characters into the real world and allows people to interact with them – it’s a concept called computer-mediated reality. Currently, AR projects are mostly developed for mobile devices. It’s an expansion (or augmenting) of physical reality based on digital resources.

Briefly, to differentiate VR and AR, we can say that if the experience is happening within a virtual environment, it’s called virtual reality. If we have both happening at the same time, interactions in the real world and the virtual environment, so we have augmented reality. However, it’s important to mention that it’s not an immersive experience

Now, what about mixed reality (MR)? Mixed reality is, essentially, the combination of virtual and augmented reality into one single experience, through the use of holograms and virtual characters/objects, or even environments. For MR, there is no distinction between virtual and augmented reality; they are merged.

At this point, things are getting a little bit more complicated. However, mixed reality can be easily explained according to the graphic below.

Mixed reality is, predominantly, virtual spaces where real world people and objects are integrated into virtual worlds to produce new representations where physical and digital objects co-exist interacting in real-time. In other words, mixed reality covers all possible variations and compositions of actual and virtual objects. It ranges from an entirely non-virtual environment to a whole virtual one.

Does it seem hard to understand and visualize what MR is? Take a look at this example:

At this time, all these technologies are still evolving, and the future is still being shaped. Their uses are countless: design, education, games, medical, military, architecture, and so on. So, what’s coming next? It’s hard to predict, but it is possible to say that these technologies will change the structure of the social relations, making them even more virtual and online than they are today.

A person in a Virtual Reality headset visor

Virtual Reality today.

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morton_Heilig

2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ISJWZpFIAlQ

3. http://www.samsung.com/pt/gear-vr/

4. https://www.oculus.com/en-us/rift/






Luciano is *no campfire required’s Designer and UX Specialist. He has a creative mind with a natural curiosity and ingenuity, persistently searching for best experience for the users.