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What Is the Difference Between AR and VR (and How Each One Helps with Visualized Learning)?

Difference between AR and VR
Google Image: Appliedart

One of the most common questions we hear when talking to people about AR (augmented reality) is what the difference between AR and VR (virtual reality) is. ‘AR? Is that the same as VR?’ People often ask.

There is certainly a lot of similarity between AR and VR in terms of fundamental underlining technology. To make things work, both AR and VR rely on software to understand and track the user’s movement and environment. Although as the technologies continue to evolve, someday in the future AR and VR maybe will merge and morph into something new that combines the strength of both, there is still significant difference between the two today in terms of how users obtain and interact with information received in either AR or VR application.

We think it is important to spell out the difference in plain and simple language to help people understand these emerging technologies’ applications.

Difference between AR and VR: see or not see the physical world

Difference #1:

VR users do not see the physical environment they are in, whereas AR users do.

If you have seen any of the VR headsets, from expensive HTC Vive or Oculus Rift devices, to Google VR cardboard that cost a few dollars, you will notice that, once you put on the headset, your visual connection to the real world is cut off. Instead, what you see is only coming from what is being projected to you inside the VR headset. And some of the newer headsets even come with earphone that will cut off (most of) the sound input from outside world. There are also many prototypes technologies that experiment the haptic feedback for touching sense and strive to achieve near complete virtual experience.

On the other hand for AR technology, either based on mobile devices (like your smart phones or tablets), or based on head mounted display (like Hololens or Google glass), users can still see everything in the real world surrounding. The augmented digital layer is placed in the real world environment as if they are part of the reality. Therefore, AR provides an enhanced version of the reality with digital addition.

For this reason, each technology is suitable for different situations and scenarios when it comes to learning and training. If the learning or training involves experiencing a different environment or setting than what is normally provided or accessible (for example preparing military combat in a real hostile enemy environment), VR provides the perfect immersive technology to take users to a completely different scene to experience what it is like to be there. But, if the learning or training involves understanding the real world around the users (for example traffic or navigation information), AR is far better solution because it is embedded in and coupled with the real world.

Difference of AR and VR: Recreate or add to the reality

Difference #2:

VR requires high visual fidelity to create immersive experience, whereas AR does not have to.

To create fully immersive experience within a VR scene, the visual display and level of interaction with the VR scene need to be at certain high fidelity level to make users feel comfortable and engaged with the content. If developed with high fidelity, VR experience can truly make users feel that they have transferred into a different world. If not carefully developed, this experience could fall short and the feeling of really being in the Virtual environment. Therefore, VR often requires long and expensive development process to make things work right.

On the other hand for AR technology, the level of fidelity that AR experience brings can vary widely based on the user case. Putting a Pokemon character into a busy city street doesn’t cause any problems with the users since the character itself already feels out of this world. As long as the experience is well incorporated into the surrounding environment, it will be well received as a good AR experience.

Based on this difference, let’s assess again which one is best suited for what applications. If the learning and training requires truly close mimicking of the real world situation (for example understanding the true danger a real life fire fighter face in a fire scene), using VR to recreate that experience is far more powerful than any other ways. However, if an approximate representation is all that is required to understand something (for example how eight planets orbiting around the sun in the solar system), AR is the right tool because it does not require too high fidelity to educate and is much easier to use.

Difference of AR and VR: monitor or understand the environment you are in

Difference #3:

Advanced AR requires deep understanding of the real world while interacting with it, VR does not require it.

To have effective and meaningful interaction with the digital overlay onto the real world, AR technology requires a very deep and comprehensive understanding of what the users are looking at. Therefore, computer vision and machine learning are at the heart of advance AR technology. For example, if the device can’t ‘see’ surfaces like a table and wall in a room, or ‘detect’ objects like buildings or cars on a street, it will not be able to accurately overlay information at the right place at the right time. In the past few years, the technology has advanced to a point where it can reach a comprehensive understanding of the environment, not quite like human eyes yet but getting close.

On the other hand for VR technology, since the users’ vision is cut off from the outside world, the device just needs to track the user’s head and body movement to feed into the visual input so the users feel all the movement is real. The device also needs to track where the boundaries of the room the user is in so that s/he doesn’t bump into a wall or an obstacle.

Because of this particular difference, AR suits best if the situation is closely tied to real environment and where real-time feedback and understanding is needed. For example, instruction or guidance on how to operate equipment can be displayed while the worker is working. Or students and teachers go on a field trip to identify plant or animal species can have information available when having the object in view.

Depending on the different applications, immersive technology like AR and VR provide complementary tools with unique value and use. As the technology continues to develop, we might see a delivery method combining both and offers versatile functionalities to all the applications mentioned.

To get a more in-depth understanding of the examples mentioned in this post, or to experience a real demo yourself, please contact



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