What’s the difference between Virtual Reality (VR) & Augmented Reality (AR)?

VR & AR are two important terms in the development and adoption of the metaverse.

You’ve probably heard of a VR headset, or used one yourself. They range from powerful, high-definition devices which need an accompanying computer, to simple cardboard devices that pair with our own mobile phones.

But are these headsets VR, or can they do AR too? What’s the difference? Read on to learn more.

What is Virtual Reality? (VR)

Virtual reality is a completely digital experience, taking the user to a completely virtual place. There is no link to the user’s real-world physical surroundings, and a user can no longer visually see anything physical that may be around them.

In essence then, VR transports the user to a world completely separate to their own. This could be a fictional, highly graphical world, like a video game, or something as simple as an empty room with a virtual computer.

What is Augmented Reality? (AR)

AR differs to VR in one crucial way. A user’s real-world physical reality is still very much part of the experience.

A good way to think about Augmented Reality is like a digital overlay on our physical world. The user can still see & touch real-world objects, and interact with them should they wish. Augmented reality injects digital objects or information into this world.

This can be made far clearer with an example. Imagine you’re cooking your favourite curry recipe. You can see all of the ingredients in front of you, you have your sharp knife in hand and are ready to go. Conventionally, you might have a cook book open to guide you through the steps, or maybe your mobile phone to hand. With a Augmented Reality overlay, a digital version of the recipe could be placed within your vision – perhaps hanging in the air to the side of your vision. Rather than looking at a physical copy of the recipe, a clear digital version is projected instead.

Can all headsets do both?

In short – no.

Headsets require certain technology to provides augmented reality features. Most crucially, it needs a camera (or cameras) to see the physical world and pass this through to the user.

Meta calls this functionality ‘Passthrough’. You can learn more about passthrough and other elements of Meta’s ‘Presence Platform’ in our recent article.