Which reality is the best?

When immersive experiences first became accessible to everyday consumers in the form of headsets like the Oculus Rift and Google Glass, it seemed like the industry was ripe for mainstream acceptance. A few years later, the hype around VR and AR seemed to have died down, and it seemed we’d have to wait some time before the hype built up again.

Then Facebook (the company) changed its name to Meta and signaled its investment in the metaverse. Suddenly everyone cared about VR and AR again.

Yet I still find many people still aren’t quite clear on what all these terms mean. What is the difference between augmented reality and virtual reality? What does ‘XR’ stand for, and what exactly is ‘mixed’ reality?

Fret no more friends, I’m here to help. I should note that some of these terms are constantly evolving and that sometimes academic/technical/corporate usage differs from colloquial usage (we’re primarily focused on the colloquial here), but this guide should help you make sense of our imminent immersive future.

Virtual Reality (VR)

Virtual reality is the OG. When people think of immersive computer-generated experiences beyond just gaming on a giant TV, VR is probably what comes to mind the most.

Credit: Oculus

Virtual reality generally refers to a fully immersive experience — replacing the real world with a fully computer-generated one. Typically, experiencing VR requires wearing an opaque headset that fully replaces what your eyes would typically see of the real world. This generally counts even if the VR headset is creating a simulacrum of the real world — some VR headsets, for instance, are able to project aspects of the real world into your field of view using headset-mounted cameras.

Basically, if you strap on something onto your face and can’t see out of it until you turn it on, that’s VR.

Examples: Oculus Rift/Go, HTC Vive, Google Cardboard, Nintendo Virtual Boy

Augmented Reality (AR)

Now things are getting a little muddier, but in general, AR is the counterpart to VR. While VR replaces the real world with computer-generated imagery, AR instead seeks to, erm, augment the real world with virtual experiences. Therefore, when you’re experiencing AR, your perception is still guided by real-world objects and events.

Google Glass