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Virtual reality versus augmented reality: Which is the future?

They’re both new technologies, cutting edge in fact, both currently involve dorky hardware and are the subject of fascination to the world’s most influential people in tech.

But the advent of AR or VR could lead us down very different paths in entertainment, gaming, communication and industry. So which will out? Augmented reality which overlays virtual 3D graphics onto our view of the real world or virtual reality which immerses us in 360 degree views of new worlds with little or no sensory input from the room your body is actually in.

Here’s how the two technologies stack up.

VR vs AR: The fighting talk

Magic Leap video will blow your mind

Both AR and VR are quick to find converts to the two sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory visions of the future on offer. Let’s jump in with a few very sure of themselves CEOs and founders.

Microsoft’s HoloLens has been hogging the headlines the past few months but the augmented reality tech that the industry is going nuts over (and throwing all its cash at) is Magic Leap. The company’s CEO Rony Abovitz is a critic of VR as the way forward in entertainment and gamin, going so far as to call it dangerous.

In an Ask Me Anything on Reddit, Abovitz discussed the differences between VR and AR – namely that VR headsets immerse users in an artificial world and AR incorporates objects and environments from the real world. “There are a class of devices (see-through and non-see-through) called stereoscopic 3D,” he said. “We at Magic Leap believe these inputs into the eye-brain system are incorrect and can cause a spectrum of temporary and/or permanent neurologic deficits.”

Read this: We go hands on with Microsoft HoloLens

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“Our philosophy as a company (and my personal view) is to ‘leave no footprints’ in the brain. The brain is very neuroplastic and there is no doubt that near-eye stereoscopic 3D systems have the potential to cause neurologic change.”

Prophet-of-VR Palmer Luckey has no such concerns. He says that if we can make VR as satisfying and compelling as real life then it will be “one of the most important technologies in the history of man”.

Read this: How does VR actually work?

And Mark Zuckerberg, the man who spent $2 billion of Facebook’s money on Luckey’s VR company Oculus, is just as enamoured. “We’re working on VR because I think it’s the next major computing and communication platform after phones,” he said in July. “we’ll have the power to share our full sensory and emotional experience with people whenever we’d like.”

Then again, some people like Apple’s Jony Ive thinks that the face is “the wrong place for wearable tech” entirely. Time will tell if everyone’s favourite gadget designer got this one right.

VR vs AR: The experience

HTC Vive review

Google Glass is underwhelming and didn’t live up to the hype. HoloLens is impressive but has field of vision problems at this early stage. And no-one has built AR technology into smartglasses we’d actually wear. But none of that means that as soon as 2016 we won’t see RayBan and Oakley glasses running a new and improved Glass OS that actually feels like it is augmenting our view of the world in a helpful, reliable, discrete way.

Like voice controlled tech, day-to-day AR has plenty of pop culture inspiration but no-one will get on board until it works every time – and looks cool. Of the two, AR is the one that we are supposed to be using out of the house, in public, in front of other people in the future. Outside Silicon Valley, that just isn’t happening with the current experience.

As for VR, the experience matches up to our expectations slightly more. The hardware isn’t absolutely, absolutely perfect – we wouldn’t say no to higher res displays on the Oculus Rift, more ergonomic controllers for the HTC Vive and eye tracking as standard. But these will come.

Read this: Trending – Next-gen VR controllers

Yes, we’ve heard of the wireless Samsung Gear VR being used on a train but let’s face it, VR will begin life as an at-home gaming peripheral and for the user, it will deliver the goods. It’s magic.

The British Museum's first VR exhibit

While AR will eventually be neatly tucked into the sides of your sports sunnies, though, VR is always going to have to enclose your eyes and ears with lenses, displays and headphones to work.

AR glasses will cause etiquette problems as they ‘disappear’ whereas VR will go the other way with us very clearly ‘plugging in’ to a virtual world for a session. With pass-through cameras there could even be some kind of hybrid wearable that offers both.

In general, AR specs are lighter and more comfortable than VR headsets and they are more likely to be wireless.

As for price, it’s all a bit of a muddle. Oculus Rift is $599, HTC Vive is $200 more than that (but includes controllers), PS VR will be $399, Google Glass was $1,500 the HoloLens dev kit is a whopping $3,000.

But you can also pick up mobile VR headsets for less than $10…

VR vs AR: The industries

Workplace wearables revealed

In terms of how the experience of VR and AR stack up to the hype, we’ve looked at it from the point of view of the early adopter who wants to check emails in the corner of their eye or game on a futuristic peripheral.

But we’ll get there quicker if businesses, universities, airlines, schools and everyone in between picks up the technologies. And we’ve seen plenty of early trials of both AR glasses and VR headsets.

Both AR and VR are being touted as the key to training medical students by replacing textbooks – Microsoft has partnered with universities in the US and released a video to show how AR can teach anatomy. Elsewhere, the Wellcome collection and Epic Games just held a competition to find VR visualisations of research data for university academics working with big data sets.

And in museums and education Samsung is trialling both VR and AR in projects such as First Life at the Natural History Museum and Parthenon sculptures and Bronze Age exhibitions at the British Museum.

Samsung sees these two emerging technologies not as competing options but simply different tools available depending on the subject matter and size of the group. Likewise, the BBC which wants both VR and AR projects for its £100k Taster prize for interactive and immersive entertainment.

The big benefit of AR in industry is offering a heads up display that keeps hands free and handy information in the worker’s eyeline – to NASA engineers and astronauts, construction and factory workers and airline customer service staff.

We’ve also recently seen Google Glass pivot with a quiet comeback with plans to distribute the smart specs to companies and enterprises depending on their specific needs. That’s key because often wearables’ most useful asset is their ability to be extremely specific to a person, place or situation in terms of design, size, safety and content.

VR vs AR: Which is the future?

This is really the question of whether humans want what they experience in the future to be based in well, reality, or constructed, artificial and cut off from what we now refer to as reality. That’s a big question.

We’re social creatures. So you might think VR has a slight disadvantage – augmented reality demos such as HoloLens’ Halo 5 demo allow a group of users to stand in a circle around ‘holograms’ simultaneously.

But steps are already being taken to make VR more social – Facebook is betting big on it and we are beginning to see real investment in platforms which allow virtual hangouts such as AltSpaceVR. And look no further than at art projects such as the telepresence installation Me and My Shadow which connected visitors from four cities in a virtual space.

Neither of these technologies is as passive or as social in a physical location sense of the word as say, hanging out half-watching TV. And this could be a big factor. To play a game or experience on Oculus or HTC Vive, you have to commit yourself fully. And VR is thrilling and entertaining enough that gamers will do this, not to mention students, say, getting their heads around anatomy.

Perhaps the difference will be VR as an at-home treat, as console gaming or kicking back to a Blu-ray is today and AR for more of a social, everyday experience that doesn’t take you away from smartphone alerts, walking down the street or playing with your kids. The answer, then? Well, it’s both isn’t it.

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