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Defining New Realities: Augmented, Virtual and Mixed

It’s a new year, so let’s start it off on the right foot or, rather, in the right reality. First item on the agenda: Clarifying our use of the terms AR, VR and MR.

As a larger community, enterprise wearable tech users, solution providers, experts and enthusiasts need to get on the same page in 2017. For one, they need to see “eye to eye” when it comes to distinguishing between Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and Mixed Reality, for there are too many conflicting definitions out there. We cannot communicate and problem solve across industries without common understanding or a common framework.

Differing classifications for AR, VR and MR make clear communication between solution providers and end users problematic. Solution providers seem to have their own unique ways of not only describing the different realities but also of categorizing their own solutions; while end users often don’t fully understand the current capabilities and limitations of these technologies, or appreciate which “reality” would best serve their business needs.

Sibling technologies? Kissing cousins? Competing realities? And is MR truly a combination of both AR and VR?

It seems most people get the concept of Virtual Reality; it’s the differences between Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality that are less clear. End users and experts don’t seem to be on the same page, with everyone describing these new realities differently and some even throwing the term “Assisted Reality” into the mix. Let’s consider how several insiders are explaining AR, VR and MR; and then we will offer our own set of descriptions as a unifying framework for ongoing discussion.

J.P. Gownder (VP and Principal Analyst, Forrester Research) laid the academic groundwork for us during his presentation at EWTS ’16: According to this expert, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and Mixed Reality are a set of experiences that lie upon a continuum known as the Virtuality Continuum between the Real World and the Digital World (composed entirely of pixels.) These experiences are created using “fictitious or recorded content that [was once] in the real world but is now pixelated.” Main takeaway: AR, VR and MR are different experiences that extend upon the real world—all part of what J.P. called the “Extended Reality revolution.”

So how does an expert like Gownder define the three experiences?

  • AR: One possible experience is to augment what you see by superimposing information either off to the side or on top of your field of view. (Some people distinguish between AR, in which digital info appears over your field of view, and Assisted Reality, in which information appears in a corner of your vision.)
  • VR: You can also “augment the virtual world” in what J.P . terms “Augmented Virtuality.” Good VR is achieved through 3D imagery, 360-degree viewpoints, and 3D sound—all contributing to a highly immersive experience.
  • MR: J.P. approached MR as “a special case of AR with some VR characteristics.” Instead of mere superimposed information, MR features interactive holograms integrated into the user’s real world.

On the solution side, Atheer’s Christian Prusia had a slightly different take on AR, describing it as an experience in which you see the natural world but there is a “computer overlay” that follows you, remaining in your field of view even when you turn your head. “AR is aware of the real world but the UI is floating, not fixed.” MR, on the other hand, involves mapping the real world and tying a computer image to a fixed (anchor) point in real space. Finally, in VR, “everything is fake.”

So, again, AR involves a computer overlay of information in your field of view. This information can be contextual but the display is not anchored in the real world; it moves with you. VR is an entirely generated digital experience in a virtual space; and MR consists of computer images that appear to exist within and relate to the user’s real environment.

Joakim Elvander of Sony focused more closely on the nuances among and different uses for AR, MR and what some call Assisted Reality:

  • AR involves “in-field-of-view graphics,” and is most appropriate in those cases where there is a need for superimposed information yet it is still important to see the real world. (Your FOV remains largely unobstructed.)
  • MR features “3D models [attached] to an anchor in the real-world environment,” and is great for visualization. Reality is “just a backdrop” in this experience; the user is viewing and interacting with the computer-generated model, making for a potentially obstructive experience (because MR is more immersive than AR.)
  • Joakim also used the term “side-screen” in describing an experience like Assisted Reality, or what one might see through a pair of Google Glass. Assisted Reality involves purely textual or basic visual information that is not necessarily tied to the real world.

Confused yet? Some clarification is in order. Part of the problem lies in how solution providers like Christian and Joakim self-categorize or refer to their own technologies. Both used rather unique verbiage or phrasing above, while Gownder – representing Academia – drew upon the long history of these technologies. End users, for their part, seem to seek to define AR, VR and MR in terms of how they are applying them. Below we offer our own “definitive guide” to the differences among the new realities:

The EnterpriseWear Definitive Guide to AR, VR and MR

AR, VR and MR are three technologies that all create a computer-generated reality for the user to participate in, optimally through some kind of head-mounted display. Each one, however, presents its version of reality in a unique way, with computer-generated objects and images ranging from basic text and visuals to convincing holograms to lifelike simulations. What sets the three apart from one another is how those objects interact with the user and his or her environment.

Augmented Reality involves overlaying digital content onto the real world. In this experience, the user is still very aware of and can interact with his environment. For the sake of simplicity, I would argue that Assisted Reality is Augmented Reality, whether the computer-generated overlay appears in front of both eyes or just in the corner of one. The digital content can be quite basic (i.e. arrows and other universal symbols, simple text or drawn lines, perhaps triggered by your location or a verbal command or put there by a remote expert) or it might be more elaborate (a building plan, for ex.); but the information cannot be manipulated in a dynamic way and will remain in your field of view as you turn your head with your heads-up display on.

Mixed Reality is like the wild card in the discussion, often used interchangeably with AR though they are not the same. MR is more immersive than AR but less so than VR, blurring the line between the digital and real worlds more than AR but not replacing the real world with an entirely virtual experience as VR does.

MR is capable of 3D mapping the real world and superimposing convincing holographic images onto reality; the holograms are responsive to the real world because they are integrated into the user’s environment. Think of it this way: In AR, digital content appears on top of your view of the real world, but in MR holograms and other 3D content appear to share the user’s space and are receptive to both the user’s interaction and changes in the real-world environment.

Whereas AR and MR are additive experiences, Virtual Reality is immersive, creating a computer-generated environment that replaces the real world. The user interacts solely within this virtual world. So, in VR, your view of the real world – the real room you are standing in – disappears, being replaced with a virtual space filled with virtual objects and moving elements with which you can interact.

  • How do you distinguish among AR, VR and MR? Agree or disagree with our descriptions? Care to make your own suggestions or further clarifications? Let us know in the comments below. Let us, as a community, come up with one universal set of definitions. 


About EWTS 2017:

The 3rd annual Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit 2017 taking place May 10-12, 2017 in San Diego, California is the leading event for wearable technology in enterprise. It is also the only true enterprise event in the wearables space, with the speakers and audience members hailing from top enterprise organizations across the industry spectrum. Consisting of real-world case studies, engaging workshops, and expert-led panel discussions on such topics as enterprise applications for Augmented and Virtual Reality, head-mounted displays, and body-worn devices, plus key challenges, best practices, and more; EWTS is the best opportunity for you to hear and learn from those organizations who have successfully utilized wearables in their operations. 

3 replies
  1. Denis Hurley
    Denis Hurley says:

    Language is always evolving, but it’s important that we agree on terms. These times of exponential growth are particularly confusing. I appreciate your attempt at clarification, but I do not agree with the definition of mixed reality.

    The reality-virtuality continuum that J.P. Gownder refers to was defined by Paul Milgram in 1995. Last spring, I spoke with Professor Milgram, and he refers to anything on the spectrum as mixed reality. The HoloLens (among others) provides a richer experience than most see-through AR that came before it, so there is an attempt to differentiate it. However, the existence of additional features does not necessitate use of another term, especially one that is used to define something else. The HoloLens is an example of AR. Positional tracking, situated media, whatever fantastic elements and however we want to refer to them, can and will be added to AR experiences.

    • Gerald Binder
      Gerald Binder says:

      I totally agree to your comment, Denis. It’s all defined in Milgrams work (and AR is well defined from Azuma). All these term confusion comes from mere marketing strategies to be “different” or “new”. However, what I like is the definition of “Assisted Reality” for the experienced offered by smart glasses like Google Glass etc.

      At the end … I am looking forward to great more or less immersive experiences … whatever they are called. 😉

    • Emily
      Emily says:

      Thank you for disagreeing, Denis! We’re always seeking to expand our knowledge and be schooled by experts such as yourself. I think Gerald has a good point–a lot of the confusion arises from companies’ marketing strategies, especially Microsoft’s insistence on the term “Mixed Reality” for HoloLens. Do you have any ideas as to how we as a community can differentiate among the various AR experiences offered by all these devices?


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