The terms Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) have become popularised in recent years. This is not because they are brand new technologies, but rather that technological advances have got to the point where these forms of reality have more of a chance to become a part of our daily lives. What are they and how will they impact our lives?
Virtual Reality creates a real or imaged environment and simulates the presence of the user in that environment to allow for interaction. In other words, it’s the experience of a world that doesn’t exist. To allow this to work, you need a computerised system that allows you to experience and interact with a 3D world, often by wearing a head-mounted device which gives stereoscopic vision usually combined with stereo sound and input tracking. All of this creates a believable (but computer-generated) world for you to explore. In this VR world, you will feel that you are there, mentally and physically.
Oculus (Gear VR and Rift) is the head-mounted device that most recently has driven the revolution for VR but there are many other such devices, including HTC Vive, Sony Playstation VR, Samsung Gear VR, and the incredibly affordable Google Cardboard.
Augmented Reality differs from Virtual Reality as it is based on a real environment, but enhanced with computer-generated sensory elements. These could include sound, video, graphics or even GPS data. An AR world is one that is grounded in the real world and real time but supplemented with data or sensory input, allowing the user to gain further information than would otherwise be available or be able to digitally manipulate the real world. Unlike VR, Augmented Reality places contextual digital information on top of the user’s physical environment. This happens because AR apps are written in 3D programmes that tie animations or digital information to a marker in the real world. This marker, when recognised by the receiver, whether an app or browser plug-in, executes the pre-designed code and layers the image or data over the real-world environment.
The most commercially recognised application of AR would be Google Glass and Heads-up Displays in car windshields, and even smartphone application of GPS. However, there are many industrial applications for Augmented Reality from marketing to public safety, healthcare, gas & oil, and tourism. Of course, more people in the world are becoming aware of AR as the user base of the Nintendo game, Pokemon Go!, grows into the millions.
Applications for these modes of reality could be endless. Though the applications to the highly profitable gaming industry are obvious, in the future, we may see AR and VR used for many aspects of daily life. This may include marketing or e-commerce where consumers can ‘try on’ a product whether spectacles, jewellery, clothes and footwear or furniture. Educational resources for learning new skills, especially those that are expensive to do in the real world such as flight training or learning new surgical procedures could benefit from these technologies. Of course, AR and VR could have many industrial, military and medical applications.
These are exciting days, indeed, where the digital meets the physical (AR) or even takes over the real world (VR) to provide a greater experience for our real world lives.