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AR vs VR: What’s the difference?

When does reality become virtual? And why are these two technologies changing every industry on the planet? 

In the 1990s, the corporate self-help mantra ‘Build Your Own Reality’ was meant to be taken figuratively. Now, of course, reality comes tailor-made. It can be augmented, enhanced and, in some cases, synthesised entirely. With consumer-friendly ‘Virtual Reality’ and ‘Augmented Reality’ devices like Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR, we can now spend whole weeks living inside virtual worlds (although the long-term social and neurological consequences of this Matrix-level immersion are probably debatable).

So what’s the difference between ‘VR’ (Virtual Reality) and ‘AR’ (Augmented Reality)? Well, it’s a tricky question. The two technologies have begun to bleed into one another, blurring the line between digital and real – and, some would say, making that distinction kind of obsolete. Apple CEO Tim Cook has already predicted that “eventually, all countries will have AR experiences every day, almost like eating three meals a day. It will become that much a part of you.”


Virtual Reality

We’ll start with Virtual Reality, which can trace its origins all the way back to the 1970s, when NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory began developing crude flight simulators for astronauts. Virtual Reality essentially replaces the world around you with a virtual substitute. As technology currently stands, this requires some sort of VR headset – anything from cheap Google Cardboard goggles to high-end models like Oculus and Vive. Early VR headsets used external sensors to track your body’s movement and (in theory) stop you crashing into walls and family members, but Windows 10 “MR” headsets and the Oculus Quest now track your head and body movements from inside the machine.


Augmented Reality

Augmented reality is a little different. Instead of projecting you into a virtual world, AR projects a digital overlay onto the real world, originally via space-age headsets like the much maligned Google Glass, and eventually through your smartphone. AR powers Snapchat filters and juggernaut mobile games like PokemonGo (arguably the most popular AR application in the world), but the technology goes way beyond simple entertainment. These days, AR is used for everything from medical training and shopping to world travel and warehouse logistics. Apple and Google have both doubled down on AR development, with Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore powering most of the apps your see today.


What’s the difference?

Where it gets complicated is something called ‘Mixed Reality’ (or ‘MR’ as it’s become known). This is where AR and VR fuse together into an all-encompassing hybrid tech. The most famous example (and probably the current market leader) is Microsoft’s HoloLens, which takes native AR goggles (that can overlay information onto the real world) then boosts the display intensity on demand, blocking out portions of the actual scene with VR-like simulation. It’s devices like HoloLens that have caused the industry to ditch all the confusing jargon for one umbrella classification: ‘XR’, or Cross Reality. Confused yet?


Getting jobs in AR and VR

Why does all this matter? Because AR and VR tech is rapidly transforming all sorts of industries, creating job gaps and fuelling massive employment potential. Global shipments for AR and VR headsets were up 27% in Q1 this year, with companies like Sony, Facebook, HTC and Pico leading the charge. Indeed has reported AR and VR job growth of 1314% over the last five years. Augmented Reality development firms are popping up all over Australia. There’s never been a better time to upskill in AR and VR – both the development of actual applications, and the more holistic AR/VR business strategy.


How to learn AR and VR

As VR and AR moved from science fiction and the gaming industry into everyday life, the education sector had to quickly pivot and catch up. The good news is that there are now multiple options for quickly learning the basics of AR and VR (and you don’t even need to sign up to a bulky three-year Bachelor degree). RMIT Online offers two short courses as part of its Future Skills portfolio: Designing and Developing AR and VR Applications and Developing VR and AR Strategy. The first is an introductory course, designed around Amazon Sumerian, that teaches you to actually build 3D applications. The second is more strategic, helping you understand how AR and VR can benefit your company’s wider business strategy.


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This article was originally published on 21 October 2019