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What are the differences among virtual, augmented and mixed reality?

They're pretty big and important.

Composite image by Re/code; original:

Note: With the recent release of Pokémon Go, we thought it might be helpful to update this post, originally published in July 2015. The new information can be found starting in the second section, "What is augmented reality?"

A Microsoft PR rep recently shut me down mid-sentence. I was starting to ask a question about HoloLens, the company’s augmented-reality glasses.

"It’s not augmented reality," the rep interrupted. "It’s mixed reality."

My first thought: Well, excuuuuuse me.

After getting over my stubbornness and doing some more research, I realized the rep was right. HoloLens and other "mixed reality" tech like Magic Leap is different from augmented reality — and both are different from virtual reality. Really different, in fact.

Some of the experts I consulted for this story say that the terminology wars are more plaster than substance. My take: Even if this is all marketing spin, consumers should be able to understand what they’re being sold. So if you’re confused, don’t worry. Re/code is here to help.

What is virtual reality?

You’ve probably heard the most about virtual reality, or VR. It’s the technology that is set to see big consumer releases within the next year, in devices like Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Sony’s Project Morpheus and the Samsung Gear VR. People also tend to know VR better because of its disastrous stab at the consumer market in the 1990s, and pop culture moments like "The Lawnmower Man" and "VR Troopers."

In VR, you wear something on your head — currently, a "head-mounted display" that can look like a boxy set of goggles or a space helmet — that holds a screen in front of your eyes, which in turn is powered by a computer, gaming console or mobile phone. Thanks to specialized software and sensors, the experience becomes your reality, filling your vision; at the high end, this is often accompanied by 3-D audio that feels like a personal surround-sound system on your head, or controllers that let you reach out and interact with this artificial world in an intuitive way.

What distinguishes VR from adjacent technologies is the level of immersion it promises. When VR users look around — or, in more advanced headsets, walk around — their view of that world adjusts the same way it would if they were looking or moving in real reality.

The key buzzword here is presence, shorthand for technology and content that can trick the brain into believing it is somewhere it’s not. When you flinch at a virtual dinosaur, or don’t want to step off an imaginary ledge, that’s presence at work.

And that’s where one of VR’s historically toughest challenges comes in. Turns out, our brains are actually pretty smart at sniffing out badly delivered presence. If you’re riding a virtual roller coaster but your body doesn’t feel like it’s moving, the brain might think something is wrong, and … blech. Best-case scenario, you keep your lunch but wind up being made fun of by the "What Does the Fox Say?" guys on Norwegian TV:

Recent tech advances have cut down on the latency, the time between when you move your head and when the virtual picture adjusts; that’s crucial for not making the brain feel sick. However, the current conventional wisdom is that some simulator-sensitive folks may never be able to have a long VR experience, and it will always be possible to intentionally design stomach-churning software — something platform owners like Oculus and Sony will want to control.

Got it. So, what is augmented reality?

Augmented reality, or AR, is similar to VR in that it is often delivered through a sensor-packed wearable device, such as Google Glass, the Daqri Smart Helmet or Epson’s Moverio brand of smart glasses. That’s not always true, though, and the similarities stop shortly after that.

The key term for AR is utility. A typical augmented-reality experience will probably be a lot less exciting than meeting a dinosaur or riding a roller coaster, but analysts have argued that the potential market for AR applications is actually much larger than VR’s.

The whole point of that ugly word, augmented, is that AR takes your view of the real world and adds digital information and/or data on top of it. This might be as simple as numbers or text notifications, or as complex as a simulated screen, something ODG is experimenting with on its forthcoming consumer smart glasses. But in general, AR lets you see both synthetic light as well as natural light bouncing off objects in the real world.

AR makes it possible to get that sort of digital information without checking another device, leaving both of the user’s hands free for other tasks. That makes the current technology a natural fit for the enterprise, where a corporation in the energy field, for example, might want to give field workers who are inspecting equipment glasses that can take pictures of and deliver information about what they’re seeing from atop a wind turbine.

There are some consumer-facing applications for AR — for example, piloting a drone — but lately the non-enterprise crowd has decamped for either VR or mixed reality.

Update 7/13/16: At the time of this update, the buzz around "augmented reality" has accelerated thanks to the smartphone game Pokémon Go. The game is mainly designed around maps, letting players find and catch in the real world characters from Nintendo's long-running Pokémon game franchise. When they find a Pokémon, players can enter an augmented reality mode that lets them see their target on their phone screens, superimposed over the real world.

However, some observers claim that Pokémon Go is not "real" augmented reality. Read on to better understand what they mean ...

Okay, then, what is mixed reality?

This is the least-well-known of the trio right now, but it ironically might have the easiest road to mainstream consumer adoption — if the tech works as advertised.

The key term for mixed reality, or MR, is flexibility. It tries to combine the best aspects of both VR and AR, wrapped up in a marketable term that sounds marginally less geeky than its cousins.

In theory, mixed reality lets the user see the real world (like AR) while also seeing believable, virtual objects (like VR). And then it anchors those virtual objects to a point in real space, making it possible to treat them as "real," at least from the perspective of the person who can see the MR experience.

Update 7/13/16: Continuing the Pokémon Go update from above, characters seen in that game do not follow the rules of mixed reality, which some describe as "real" augmented reality. Once a Pokémon is encountered in the real world, its distance from the player does not change as that player's phone moves around; in other words, the character appears to be on top of the real world when viewed through the phone, but it's easy to break the illusion that it is in that real world.

With mixed reality, the illusion is harder to break. To borrow an example from Microsoft’s presentation at the gaming trade show E3, you might be looking at an ordinary table, but see an interactive virtual world from the video game Minecraft sitting on top of it. As you walk around, the virtual landscape holds its position, and when you lean in close, it gets closer in the way a real object would.

That sounds great, but real-world applications for MR are still largely happening behind closed doors. The E3 Minecraft demo wasn’t completely honest advertising, and Magic Leap* — a high-secrecy but high-profile company due to investments from Google, Qualcomm and others — has yet to publicly reveal a portable, consumer-ready version of its MR technology. In February, the MIT Technology Review described the company’s top hardware as "scaffolding," and a concept video for the eventual wearable device was dubious. Microsoft, meanwhile, has done several public demos but hasn’t yet committed to a release date for HoloLens.

For certain developers tracking the ecosystem, it may make sense to redefine applications that once were called augmented reality as mixed reality. Outside of the enterprise world, the former has largely served gimmicky marketing, while the latter is still buzzy and sexy. Well, buzzy, at least.

Just to make things extra confusing, some experiences that once were called augmented reality, such as Daqri’s Crayola coloring app, would now be called mixed reality under this definition. One person I interviewed for this story, who asked not to be named, insisted that mixed reality is "real AR," but acknowledged that Google Glass and its ilk had co-opted that term away in the popular mind.

So, there you have it: A basic primer in three future-looking technologies. Although the "Calvin & Hobbes" fan in me appreciates Google’s catchall "transmogrified reality," a better umbrella term might be "digital reality," which I stole from Adam Draper at Boost VC. (Thanks, Adam!)

Really, anything would better than "VR/AR/MR."

Questions? Things I left out? Tweet or email me.

* Magic Leap used to use the term "cinematic reality," but — thank goodness! — a company rep confirmed that it has dropped that confusing phrase. It’s all in on "mixed reality" now.

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