AR vs. MR vs. VR, What's The Difference?

Recently I was at a dinner party and someone brought up the topic of “AR vs. VR." A guest across the table, astute and generally in-the-know, in her mid-fifties leaned over and whispered, “what’s AR?” It came to my attention that a lot of people, well-educated and informed, might not know technical terms that are affecting their lives on a daily basis. So here we are, reviewing terminology and examples of technology we have already encountered, and will continue to become more absorbed with every day. This might not be sexy, but it’s critical to know as our culture evolves.

We’ll start with “AR” or Augmented Reality. Augmented Reality is when we are in a real-world environment, but our visuals, auditory, or senses are perceived or interacting with the digital world by-way-of added computer-generated enhancements. Digital world pieces are input or added to our real world experience. Examples of this range from filters on your Instagram or Snapchat to the Benjamin Moore website. The platform allows you to “paint” realistic room images to see and review which color might suit your space best. The Franklin Institute notes how AR is helping us in all sorts of avenues beyond entertainment and decorating:


  • Enhanced navigation systems use augmented reality to superimpose a route over the live view of the road.

  • During football games, broadcasters use AR to draw lines on the field to illustrate and analyze plays.

  • Military fighter pilots see an AR projection of their altitude, speed, and other data on their helmet visor, which means they don’t need to waste focus by glancing down to see them.

  • Neurosurgeons sometimes use an AR projection of a 3-D brain to aid them in surgeries.   


Apple explains more in-depth how their software and hardware provide cutting-edge AR to “work, learn, play, shop, and connect with the world around you.” AR is adding to our lives across healthcare, defense, entertainment, retail, transportation, and more. It allows us to optimize the “real world” experience to make us safer, faster, and communicate more effectively. 


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Second up, there’s “MR” or Mixed Reality. Mixed Reality is essentially an enhanced version of Augmented Reality or a true blend of the real and virtual worlds. As a user, you interact with both the physical world and the digital world simultaneously. For example, contractors, architects, interior designers, and engineers use software to build virtual solutions of buildings before they are erected. They can work just like the real world, with HVAC, plumbing and electricity. Then the team and client can walk-through and see the design that is-to-come. They are physically in the space, then see virtually the finishing wallpaper, woodwork, flooring, furniture and light fixtures. The team can adapt design or solve problems before the real-world execution. Another example of MR is in education. Medical schools can now teach anatomy and disease through 3D holograms. Any disease can be seen and heard in the digital world. 3D body holograms show the heart beating, lungs expanding, the muscles and skin are seen and studied in the digital world. Cleveland Clinic explains in more depth. MR technology allows medical students to not just read from a book and explore from a cadaver, it exposes them to palpable problems in life-size 3D visuals and noises. This educates our doctors, engineers, and all industries to connect the dots quicker. Still, it’s not quite as immersive as VR.


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VR, or Virtual Reality, is where you are completely in a digital environment. For example, you wear a headset like Oculus’ Quest 2. The visual device surrounds your vision and immerses you into a simulated environment. The gaming industry caught onto this years ago. Gamers could “fight” or “play” in a completely digital world - including visuals, noises, sounds, entire personas, lands, and experiences are understood, while the real-world gamer might be sitting on his or her bed. Now VR can be used in other applications as well. Lowe's allows customers to completely experience their homes before each is built. Toms’ shoes allows customers to see the company giving a pair of shoes to a child in need. And potential customers can experience test driving cars through VR. What does it feel like to sit-in the passenger seat, see through the windshield, and feel the engine purr. This technology can ultimately save time and money in retail, but also help in the medical arena. Imagine putting on your VR headset and meditating every morning by a creek in Nepal, or working through pain relief or PTSD in a simulation world. Our friends at Wired explain more. Still, the future of Virtual Reality can be positive, or stifling. The bullying and emotional turmoil we’ve witnessed with AR is intensified when the user is “all-in." As a culture, we’re going to need to work through the best ways to utilize these technologies.


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The truth is, AR, MR, and VR are incorporated into our art, healthcare, logistics, retail, real estate, entertainment, and just about every other corner of our world. Their industries are growing, and our adaptation to these technologies will become more critical as culture evolves. One last piece of vocabulary to take away - these three acronyms grouped together are noted as “XR." So the next time you are at a dinner party, you can drop this extra in-the-know vernacular into the conversation.

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