AR vs. VR: What today’s HoloLens, Vive and Rift tell us about our virtual future

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AR like HoloLens and VR like the Rift will likely exist side-by-side, and maybe one day converge(Credit: Will Shanklin/New Atlas)

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On one hand you have virtual reality: It's here, it's pretty awesome and it's only going to get better. But there's also augmented reality, known sometimes as mixed reality, holographic computing or even "merged reality" (because apparently every new company that enters this space insists on coining its own terminology). Consumer AR isn't here yet, but it's inching closer. We recently got our paws on a pre-release Microsoft HoloLens, by far the most advanced AR headset known to the public, and we have some thoughts on the pros and cons of its augmented worlds, how they size up to today's best VR and where this is all heading.

First, a quick primer on the differences between VR and AR, for the uninitiated:

Virtual reality (VR) uses a headset to block off your real surroundings and immerse you in stereoscopic, 360-degree worlds, with the goal of making you forget where you are and feel like you're someplace else. Today's best VR headsets are tethered to a high-powered gaming PC via cable, while others use a game console or an inserted smartphone.

Examples of VR headsets include the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Sony PlayStation VR and Samsung Gear VR.

Augmented reality (AR), meanwhile, mixes a live view of your real surroundings (either through a camera feed or, preferably, directly through clear lenses) along with virtual objects, characters and animations that are layered on top of that real-world view. The best AR will also scan and map your immediate surroundings so the virtual can seemingly interact with the real (so you have things like characters sitting on your real furniture and Skype video calls hanging right on your real wall). AR requires even more complex tech than VR, since even these early models are completely wireless.

HoloLens is the most obvious public example of AR today, but startup Magic Leap and (almost certainly) other big-name rivals to Microsoft are working on similar tech behind closed doors. Some people described Google Glass as AR, but, since it was just a static display hovering on the edges of your field of view, with no illusions of placing 3D objects into your environment, we'd say Glass was, at the very most, extremely rudimentary AR.

So is augmented reality or virtual reality better? And does one have a brighter future? There are no cut and dry answers to those questions, but we have to think their respective evolutions are going to make for some terrific theatre in the years to come, perhaps culminating in a grand intermingling for the ages.

VR is farther along right now, thanks to its more straightforward and tethered requirements. But AR's blending of reality and fantasy will eventually create entirely new experiences – both in entertainment and practical realms – that humanity has only dreamed of up to this point.

Can VR and AR exist side-by-side? Absolutely. Strapping on our HoloLens dev kit, and then switching to the Vive or Rift, we see two distinct experiences.

Once you mentally get past its laughably tiny field of view, HoloLens can transform your office into a crime scene ripe for investigation, your living room into a 3D design lab or your bedroom into a home theater with a virtual 60-inch screen for Netflix or YouTube. And remember this is a developer device with scant available software. Give app-makers another year or two and the number of experiences will dwarf what we have today.

The Vive and Rift, meanwhile, can cast you in the role of an RPG hero, a towering giant looming over a tiny city or even a lightsaber-wielding Jedi. Without any real-world visuals, VR is freer to let role-playing and storytelling take center stage, letting you lose yourself in the fantasy.

If VR is visiting another dimension, AR is a wormhole opening between that dimension and ours. It's total immersion vs. total integration.

As time goes by, these respective strengths may only snowball and become more pronounced.

Tomorrow's VR will make today's games and simulations, with their relatively low resolutions and fields of view, look primitive. Today "virtual reality" is just a name we lend to something that makes you feel like you're inside a video game. But over time it will start to live up to its name more literally, seemingly teleporting you to alternate realities that transcend anything we've seen in video games.

At that point the sensation of being somewhere else will be all-encompassing, sometimes terrifyingly so – much more than the (relatively) tiny sliver of immersion we get using today's VR. It will basically be the Metaverse or The Matrix.

VR will be home to the more psychologically engrossing, emotionally captivating experiences.

Meanwhile, tomorrow's AR (which Microsoft's PR shots are unfortunately advertising as being what you get from the HoloLens today) will integrate more and more into our daily practical lives. Imagine holographic conference calls straight out of a sci-fi fantasy, where the business partner you're talking to, who's really on assignment in another continent, appears as a hologram sitting in the chair next to you. Visualize a future where apps and videos – the ones you enjoy today on your smartphone – will instead float in mid-air above your office desk or appear like window panes hanging on the wall of your subway train. Imagine 3D artists and designers, who today sit at PCs using Autodesk, instead sculpting objects with their bare hands, as they look down over a virtual workspace on top of an empty table.

There will also be overlap. Those same conference calls and 3D sculptures could just as easily happen in VR, and many VR games and sims could also use AR to take a step out of their fantastic worlds and into your real home. AR and VR headsets may even eventually converge into the same thing, shifting seamlessly from one to the other with the push of a button, depending on your needs (some companies are already trying this, but relying on a camera for real-world views is likely to cheapen the experience).

One of AR's biggest advantages is that it doesn't cut you off from the world around you. You can enjoy an AR app while still keeping an eye on your kids or pets, or that boiling pot on the stove. With AR you can also move around without worrying about bumping into things (though the Vive is already handling that part pretty well in VR).

Eventually AR's real-world visibility will allow it to go mobile, something you'll use on the go like you would a smartphone today. Or at least it will once AR headsets' battery life gets long enough and their form factors get subtle enough. The fact that dedicated VR makes you blind to the real world dictates that it will always be a one-location-at-a-time tech, whether that means at home, in the office or at the warehouse VR arcade you pile your family in the car to visit.

In these ways, AR may become the more commonplace practical tech, the one you use as much as you use your smartphone today.

So what if you're eyeing these emerging headsets and wondering where to invest your money? Do you buy one now, or wait for something better to come along?

Well, the ultimate AR we're fantasizing about, the kind that encompasses your entire field of view and may one day replace your smartphone, is likely so far away that it shouldn't even be a consideration today. The first consumer versions of HoloLens and similar AR gear are likely to have major constraints, not the least of which is making you look like a super-dweeb who got lost on the way to the Star Trek convention.

Today's best VR, meanwhile, is wired, so battery life isn't an issue, its FOV is much higher than AR's and, since it's meant for at-home use, looking like the world's biggest dork isn't much of a factor either.

Our recommendation for top first-gen VR headset is the Vive, due to its room-scale tracking, Chaperone boundaries and motion controls from Day One. The Rift is great too, though, and it will get motion controls of its own very soon. For a cheaper option, the Gear VR provides a great entry-point for Samsung flagship owners.

As for today's HoloLens, consider it a tiny preview of a glorious future (and an avenue for Microsoft to kickstart AR app development on Windows). By the time HoloLens gets a more acceptable field of view and long battery life, it will likely have several, if not many, big-name competitors. It's even possible that AR which is fully ready for primetime, without any gaping holes, will be decades away; though the spiking level of interest in the space makes us suspect things will move along more swiftly than that.

This story is going to continue to unfold over the coming weeks, months, years and decades, so stay tuned to New Atlas as we call the play-by-play on the coming revolutions and evolutions. In the meantime, for more on each alternate reality headset, you can hit up our hands-on with the HoloLens and our full reviews of the Vive, Rift and Gear VR.

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