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The Three R's

A brief primer on VR, AR and MR.

Virtual reality is nothing new.  It's been around for decades, tent-poled by a few signature eras.  The first of these was in the 1960's, when Morton Heilig built a prototype of his "Experience Theatre" called the Sensorama, and Ivan Sutherland created the first VR and AR head-mounted-display (HMD) – a massive device that required ceiling suspension.  The second era was during the mid-80's to mid-90's, when Jaron Lanier founded VPL Research, Mattel's VR Power Glove was available for just $75 USD, and the concept of virtual reality was popularized in movies such as THE LAWNMOWER MAN.  We are currently in the third era, a Facebook-fueled frenzy of global activity - leveraging on technological advances and accessibility - that just might achieve mass-market traction where previous attempts have failed.

Although awareness is growing, many people still either don't know what VR is, or refer to everything as "VR."  In China, for instance, "VR" is used as a catchall term encompassing virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality.  On the other end of the spectrum are the technorati, who debate the fine points of whether 360-degree videos should be called "VR" and whether POKEMON GO qualifies as "true" AR.

In light of this and for your consideration, here are brief explanations of VR (virtual reality), AR (augmented reality) and MR (mixed reality) that I've used when describing the technology to the uninitiated.

In VR, reality is VIRTUAL

Virtual reality (VR) entirely replaces your actual surroundings with an alternate immersive environment.  The immersive environment may be computer-generated (as in INVASION!), or 360 video (as in TAKE FLIGHT), or some combination thereof.  VR viewing hardware ranges from no-cost, entry-grade disposable mobile phone wrappers such as Google Cardboard to pricey, high-grade, PC-dependent HMDs such as HTC's Vive.  VR is currently gaming-centric, but will evolve into a broader ecosystem as the application market matures.

In AR, reality is AUGMENTED

Augmented reality (AR) supplements your actual surroundings with overlaid digital content.  The digital content is typically computer-generated, but processed video may also be used.  Augmented reality browsers such as Junaio (acquired and discontinued by Apple last year) provide location-based tags and information overlays, while AR books such as THE FANTASTIC FLYING BOOKS OF MR. MORRIS LESSMORE offer heightened content value in the form of overlaid 2D and 3D animation.  Of course, the most notable example of AR to date is POKEMON GO, which has served as a forehead-slapper to those solely fixated on VR.  (And yes - POKEMON GO is indeed "true" AR, since reality is augmented with the digital content.)

In MR, reality is MIXED

Mixed reality (MR) integrates your actual surroundings with embedded digital elements.  The embedded digital elements may be computer-generated or processed video, but what distinguishes MR from AR is that MR applies surface detection and occlusion to situate digital elements in your environment and to block your view of a digital element when it is "behind" something in your environment (ILMxLAB’s Magic Leap STAR WARS demo provides a good example of this).  Furthermore, MR applies artificial intelligence (AI) technology to make the digital elements responsive to your environment and to yourself.  Heady stuff, needless to say.

The market for AR and MR across entertainment, industrial and service sectors is predicted to greatly surpass that of VR, with AR getting a leg up sooner due to the technological challenges associated with MR.  Eventually, we'll switch freely between VR, AR and MR in our daily lives: playing with an MR pet while surfing an AR news report, and then plunging into VR to play a game or watch a movie.

More on the potential and peril of AR and MR in my next post.

Kevin Geiger's picture

Kevin is the author of AWN's Reality Bites blog, his musings on the art, technology and business of immersive media (AR, VR, MR) and AI. You can find Kevin's website at and he can be reached at