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Why Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are the same thing

Mike Elgan | Aug. 8, 2017
People are already confused about virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), 360-degree video and heads-up displays. It will get worse before it gets better.

This will be especially confusing for the public later this year, because it all goes mainstream with the introduction of the iPhone 8 (or whatever Apple will call it) and iOS 11, both of which are expected to hit the market within a month or two.

The Apple App Store will be flooded with apps that will not only do VR, AR, MR, 360 video and heads-up display content (when the iPhone is inserted into goggles) but that will creatively blend them in unanticipated combinations. Adding more confusion, some of the most advanced platforms, such as Microsoft Hololens, Magic Leap, Meta 2, Atheer AiR and others, will not be capable of doing virtual reality.

Cheap phones inserted into cardboard goggles can do VR and all the rest. But Microsoft's Hololens cannot.


Fact: The public will choose our technology labels

All these labels are still useful for describing most of these new kinds of media and platforms. Individual apps may in fact offer mixed reality or virtual reality exclusively.

Over time we'll come to see these media in a hierarchy, with heads-up displays at the bottom and virtual reality at the top. Heads-up display devices like Google Glass can do only that. But "mixed reality" platforms can do mixed reality, augmented reality and heads-up display. "Virtual reality" platforms (those with cameras attached) can do it all.

Word meanings evolve and shift over time. At first, alternative word use is "incorrect." Then it's acceptable in some circles, but not others. Eventually, if enough people use the formerly wrong usage, it becomes right. This is how language evolves.

A great example is the word "hacker." Originally, the word referred to an "enthusiastic and skilful computer programmer or user." Through widespread misuse, however, the word has come to primarily mean "a person who uses computers to gain unauthorized access to data."

Prescriptivists and purists argue that the old meaning is still primary or exclusive. But it's not. A word's meaning is decided by how a majority of people use it, not by rules, dictionaries or authority.

I suspect that over time the blurring of media will confuse the public into calling VR, AR, MR, 360 video and heads-up display "virtual reality" as the singular umbrella term that covers it all. At the very least, all these media will be called VR if they're experienced through VR-capable equipment.

And if we're going to pick an umbrella term, that's the best one. It's still close enough to describe all these new media. And in fact only VR devices can do it all.

Welcome to the fluid, flexible multimedia world of heads-up display, 360 video, mixed reality, augmented reality and virtual reality.

It's all one world now. It's all one thing. Just call it "virtual reality."


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