The border between the virtual and real world continues to break down, providing breathtaking experiences that, a short time ago, could only be found in the imagination of sci-fi writers.
Virtual Reality (VR) has been the “next big thing” for several years, but its time has finally come as a way to generate realistic images, sounds, and other sensations that put you smack in the middle of a spectacular imaginary world. Augmented Reality (AR), which adds virtual stuff to your real world environment, is contributing to the buzz, and both technologies should become a big part of our future. With Mixed Reality (MR), you can play a virtual video game, grab your real world water bottle, and smack an imaginary character from the game with the bottle. Imagination and reality have never been so intermingled.
So much is happening so fast that the differences between VR, AR, and MR can seem a little puzzling at first. Each of these spellbinding technologies are accessible to almost everyone, but before you throw down your hard-earned money for the latest head-mounted display, let’s take a closer look at what you’ll need for an amazing VR, AR, or MR experience.
The History and Future of Virtual Reality
We’ve been trying to capture “Virtual Reality” for much longer than just the past five to ten years. There were popular peer-through toys in the 1950s and enclosed flight simulators debuted in the 1960s, but the idea of VR goes back even further.
As early as the 1930s, science fiction writers, inventors, and tinkerers dreamt of an environment where you could escape from reality via art and machines. We were weighing questions about Virtual Reality vs. Augmented Reality vs. Mixed Reality long before we had the technology to make them possible.
Technology has caught up to fiction, and market researchers predict rapid growth for the VR industry.
VR and AR Meet MR
First things first, let’s define the terminology. Virtual Reality can be used as an umbrella term to describe other technologies similar to, but different from, an actual Virtual Reality experience. But what's the difference between Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality? Here are some more details:
VR is the most widely known of these technologies. It is fully immersive, which tricks your senses into thinking you’re in a different environment or world apart from the real world. Using a head-mounted display (HMD) or headset, you’ll experience a computer-generated world of imagery and sounds in which you can manipulate objects and move around using haptic controllers while tethered to a console or PC.
AR overlays digital information on real-world elements. Pokémon GO* is among the best-known examples. Augmented reality keeps the real world central but enhances it with other digital details, layering new strata of perception, and supplementing your reality or environment.
MR brings together real world and digital elements. In mixed reality, you interact with and manipulate both physical and virtual items and environments, using next-generation sensing and imaging technologies. Mixed Reality allows you to see and immerse yourself in the world around you even as you interact with a virtual environment using your own hands—all without ever removing your headset. It provides the ability to have one foot (or hand) in the real world, and the other in an imaginary place, breaking down basic concepts between real and imaginary, offering an experience that can change the way you game and work today.
Using Virtual Reality Technologies
From gaming, to movies, to medicine, the uses for Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Mixed Reality are expanding.
- Healthcare—For training, such as for surgical simulations
- Film and TV—For movies and shows to create unique experiences
- Virtual travel—For virtual trips to an art museum—or another planet—all from home
- Professional sports—For training programs like STRIVR to help pro and amateur athletes
- Gaming—For over 1,000 games already available, from first-person shooters to strategy games to role-playing adventures
What You’ll Need: Headsets
There are many, many VR headsets available, all with varying performance levels and prices. Entry-level gear, such as Google Cardboard*, uses your mobile phone as the screen, whereas PC-operated devices, like the HTC Vive* or Oculus Rift*, are immersive—providing a premium VR environment. Microsoft has their Windows* 10 Mixed Reality platform that uses fully immersive headsets offered by Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Samsung.
Some AR headsets are available on the market today, with more rumored to be coming in the future. The Microsoft Hololens*, Google Glass*, and the Meta 2* headset are great examples.
Every PC-connected HMD will have different system requirements, so if you’re buying a new Virtual Reality headset, make sure you check with the HMD vendor for their recommended and minimum system requirements.
What You’ll Need: Computers
If you are looking for a new computer and you’re interested in VR, you’ll need something that can handle heavy loads. When it comes to high-end desktops or laptops for Virtual Reality (and other advanced tasks like gaming or video editing), the CPU, GPU, and memory are the most critical components.
Without these high-performing components working in sync, you could have a pretty miserable experience. A powerful system will ensure that you’ll have fun as you lean in, stand up, or walk around. VR that lags makes it impossible for the virtual world to respond as you expect, which can lead to more than just disappointment; it increases the risk of motion sickness.
A high-end processor assists in positional tracking and controls how real and immersive your virtual environment will be, so you'll enjoy a deeper experience in a higher-fidelity environment. For a great VR experience, consider the latest generation Intel Core™ i7 processor.
A discrete graphics processing unit (GPU) is recommended, or in the case of Oculus Rift*, HTC Vive*, and Windows Mixed Reality Ultra*, it is required. The GPU is responsible for rendering the high resolution, immersive images needed for VR. Oculus, HTC, and Microsoft all have profiler tools that you can download from their websites, and you can use to run on your PC to determine if it meets the minimum requirements for their VR headsets.
Choose Your Experience
New VR and AR technologies and products continue to come to market, making new environments accessible to the masses. Virtual, Augmented, Mixed—the choice for a new reality is up to you. Let your imagination, and your readiness to try new gear, enhance your experience!
Key VR Terms to Know
Use this chart to learn more VR terms and definitions.