If you’ve been paying attention to the news over the past few years, you may have heard about virtual reality and augmented reality, and that they’re expected to be a big deal. In fact, you may have already used one or both! But there’s still a lot of confusion about the terms, and I hope to straighten that out today.
First of all, virtual reality and augmented reality are similar in many ways but they are not the same thing! Virtual reality involves the experience of a completely virtual environment, whereas augmented reality overlays virtual elements on the real world. If you’ve used a Snapchat filter or the virtual ruler app on your phone, that was augmented reality. If you’ve tried out Google Cardboard, that was virtual reality – you couldn’t see anything in the real world while you were using it.
When people bring up virtual reality, a lot of people assume they’re talking about something like the matrix. That kind of technology is a long way off and those of us who want to distinguish it from what we have now may call it “deep dive VR”. Nowadays virtual reality is experienced through big, bulky headsets and with audio buds. A lot of the kind of VR available to most people doesn’t involve touching or interaction at all, just watching a sort of 3D movie.
Some VR, the kind that’s slowly gaining acceptance, uses special controllers to let you interact with the things you see. This isn’t like touching things yourself, it’s more like using a mouse – it moves as you move, and it has buttons. The difference is that you can move a VR controller any way you want, not just on the surface of a desk. You can reach out and poke something! This is the kind of VR that can be bought as a complete rig, with headset and controllers, for about $600 on the cheaper end right now.
But what about actually touching things? People are working on solutions to this problem, but they haven’t solved it yet. Special gloves and even full-body suits have been made for this purpose, but they’re very expensive and still quite limited. Inventors have also made special treadmills that can go in any direction, so you can feel like you’re really walking around, or special chairs that let you feel like you’re piloting an airplane or something, but again these are very expensive right now.
If you’re interested in experiencing VR for yourself, you can do so affordably by visiting a Virtual Reality Arcade. These businesses rent out their expensive equipment to people interested in a taste – but they probably won’t have the gloves or suits or treadmills, not for a couple more years at least.
Well, what about augmented reality? Right now most people experience it on their phones, with things like real-time special effects, games, and shopping apps. If you’ve ever been at the furniture store and wished you could see how an item went with your space, augmented reality is your friend. It’s easy enough to go shopping digitally and use your camera to put that lazy chair right in the middle of the room, as long as you’re looking through your phone’s camera. You can do that right now, for free, with the iOS app Ikea Place (no sponsorship).
But while AR today is on your phone, the hope is that someday it’ll be in your glasses. You could have any kind of special effects put right in front of you – maybe a pop-up that reminds you of the names you always forget, or a blinking path to follow when you’re following directions. Today a number of companies are working to make these kinds of things possible. Right now it takes bulkly headsets but hopefully soon you’ll only need normal-looking, lightweight glasses.