Virtual reality (VR), artificial reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) have attracted a lot of interest in the last decade. But many do not know the difference between the two terms. Though they are related technologies, virtual reality and artificial reality are different. This article will describe the two technologies, how they are similar, how they are different, why those differences matter, and the current software developing opportunities in AR and VR.
Let’s start by defining artificial reality, also known as augmented reality. AR involves enhancing a physical environment by overlaying it with digital information. The digital information and the real world interact and complement each other to create an augmented world.
Examples of Artificial Reality
Artificial reality is used in games, apps, and even sports. Some popular examples of artificial reality include Pokémon GO, IKEA Place app, and the yellow down line in televised football:
- Pokémon GO is a smartphone game in which players find, catch, and battle virtual Pokémon located in the real world. With the help of GPS technology, smartphones identify certain locations as containing digital Pokémon. The Pokémon are superimposed into the camera’s frame. The resulting smartphone image allows virtual Pokémon to appear in public spaces like parks, buildings, and streets.
- The IKEA Place app lets users see how IKEA furniture looks in their homes. Users select a piece of furniture in the app, point their smartphone to the desired space in the house, and a digital image of the furniture is placed inside the camera’s view. This way, customers can get a taste for how the product will fit in their house before purchasing.
- The Yellow First-Down Line in television football was introduced in 1998. Now it is so commonplace that it is hard to imagine watching professional football without it. It lets viewers visualize the down line instead of having to imagine one. The technology is so seamless that it can almost be mistaken for a real line on the ground.
Sometimes AR uses special hardware, such as glasses or headsets, but more often it requires only a screen and a camera, like a smartphone. To map digital information onto real-world environments also requires sensors, such as a global positioning system (GPS) receiver, a solid state compass, and an accelerometer. The combined positioning technologies allow smartphones to recognize a physical location and match it with information associated with that location. For example, digital reviews and ratings can be superimposed onto the camera view of physical restaurants.
The software required for artificial reality is multipronged. AR needs positioning technologies, which involves real-world coordinates and tracking technology that recognizes locations via markers or sensors. The data standard language for artificial reality is called Augmented Reality Markup Language (ARML). AR software developers most use C#, C++, and Java programming languages.
Future Applications of Artificial Reality
Several applications of artificial reality are currently in development:
- The S. Army is developing military helmet displays that distinguish between enemy and friendly fire. The helmet displays can also provide soldiers with vital real-time intel.
- Google is working on a real-time text translation app called Google Quest Visual. You can preview the basic camera translation functionality in the existing Google Translate app.
- Augmedics is working on a digital surgery technology, in which surgeons see the 3D anatomy of patients and other critical digital information within their surgical view. This will allow doctors to be more efficient because they will not need to retain or refer to as much information.
AR technology is making its way into several industries. Its ability to enhance the user experience and consolidate information makes it a leading area of entrepreneurial research. So the software development opportunities for AR are growing rapidly.
AR Market Growth
The artificial reality market is projected to grow exponentially in the next few years. It will go from an estimated 10.7 billion USD industry in 2019 to a 72.7 billion USD industry by 2024. Investing in AR technology today could produce a substantial return on investment, so the time to pursue AR software development is now.
While AR enhances the physical environment, virtual reality (VR) immerses the user in an entirely new one. Virtual reality involves a simulated experience within a computer-generated, three-dimensional environment. That environment can reflect the real world or a fantasy one. Virtual reality is most commonly used in the video game industry, but it is also starting to appear in educational and training programs.
Examples of Virtual Reality
The beauty of virtual reality lies in the limitless possibilities for its applications. In the video game industry alone, endless amounts of fictional worlds are conceivable. Plus, many existing video games can and have been developed into VR versions. This is true for video games as old as Tetris and as new as the first-person shooter Half-Life. Even board games like Settlers of Catan can be made into VR games.
VR requires different types of hardware, but it almost always requires some type of headset. A headset isolates the viewer within the virtual world, immersing them completely.
Sometimes VR requires additional hardware, like special glasses, gloves, or bodysuits. These allow users to navigate their environment with sensory, haptic, or motion-tracking technology. Often VR requires optical tracking systems like infrared cameras, too.
VR headsets can be tethered or standalone. Tethered VR headsets require a connection to a PC, meaning they cannot function on their own. Standalone VR headsets can operate independently. Choosing a type is a matter of preference, but tethered VR devices are most common for gamers. Standalone VR headsets are better suited for simpler VR experiences like viewing a virtual museum.
Some popular VR headsets include the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Sony PlayStation VR, and Google Cardboard:
- The Oculus Rift is the first independently developed virtual reality headset. It was introduced in 2012 and continues to be an industry standard. It is even referenced in popular music, such as in Father John Misty’s song “Total Entertainment Forever.”
- HTC Vive is another virtual reality system competitor. Released in 2016, it boasts a wide range of compatible video games along with an OpenVR software development kit.
- The Sony PlayStation VR represents a VR device from an established video game company. It is compatible with the PlayStation 4 and the PlayStation 5 consoles.
- Finally, Google Cardboard is perhaps the most affordable VR system option because it incorporates a regular smartphone. Your smartphone is placed within its folded cardboard design, turning your phone into a makeshift VR headset. With it, you can play games, visit new places, and fly through space.
With each of these platforms, users enter a new universe. Apart from your bodily motion, you are disconnected from the real world. When you turn your head, you shift your perspective within the virtual world. When you grab with your hand, you reach into the virtual world, and so on. You are completely immersed in a virtual world.
Software development for VR is intensive because it involves coding an entire virtual environment. The simulated experience is derived completely from code. As a result, programming VR applications requires a high-end computer and advanced programming skills.
Most VR applications are coded in Unity game engine, which typically uses programming language C#. Alternatively, the Unreal game engine also develops a lot of VR applications and uses coding language C++. Especially if you want to program VR video games, knowing C# or C++ is a must.
Other Applications of Virtual Reality
But video games are not the only technology that use virtual reality. VR is beginning to emerge in the training, education, and engineering sectors:
- Medical students can practice surgeries in VR before they operate on real people.
- Pilots can train with VR flight simulators to minimize the danger of flying a real plane for the first time.
- Students can learn tasks in VR. Instead of observing and then imitating a teacher, they can visualize themselves performing the task in VR with a hands-on approach.
- VR can be used in marketing. It can allow potential customers to test products before buying. They can take the product on a virtual “test drive.”
- Architects and engineers can use VR to enhance their computer-aided design (CAD) programs. They can 3D model tangible products in VR, which allows them to sculpt, mold, paint, and develop objects from any angle.
VR is attracting the interest of a variety of industries, including but not limited to defense, education, construction, engineering, healthcare, and business. Virtual reality’s heavy reliance on code makes it a versatile medium. And the massive costs saved by incorporating VR incentivizes companies to invest in the technology.
VR Market Growth
Though it does not share as large of a market size as AR, VR is also a fast-growing industry. The estimated 7.9 billion USD VR market in 2019 is projected to grow to a 44.7 billion USD market by 2020. Again, the opportunities for VR software development are very promising, and it is better to get in the market now than later.
Similarities Between AR and VR
To be sure, VR and AR are related technologies:
- Both create a reality that is different from the real world.
- They both allow users to engage that environment through positioning technology.
- Often, they use similar hardware, like headsets and head-mounted displays (HMDs). As a result, a VR and an AR headset are often indistinguishable from the outside.
- VR and AR both require heavy coding.
- AR and VR technology find their most prominent appeal in the video game industry. The simulated and the augmented experience cater to the role-playing nature of video games.
Differences Between AR and VR
Though artificial reality and virtual reality are related, there are key differences:
- AR enhances a physical environment by overlaying digital information onto the real world, while VR immerses the user in a totally fictional environment. Of course, that fictional environment may resemble a real one, but it does not need the real world to function the same way AR does.
- Sometimes AR uses hardware like special glasses, but often it requires only a smartphone with a camera. To confine the user’s vision, VR nearly always requires some type of headgear.
- VR requires programming an entire simulated world. AR only requires programming that coordinates digital information with the real world.
- VR requires at least a 50 Mbps connection, while AR requires upwards of 100 Mbps bandwidth.
- In AR, you are still connected to the real world. Digital information is merely added to it. But in VR, you are more or less cut off from the tangible world. You use the motion of your body to navigate, but the environment itself is totally virtual.
Why the Differences Matter
Knowing the differences between AR and VR is important for not only users but for software developers. AR development focuses on integrating GPS data with digital information and camera technology. VR focuses on programming a virtual environment that can be maneuvered by a real person. So VR and AR software development require different programming skills.
Fortunately, there are software development kits (SDKs) and APIs for both AR and VR. An SDK is a collection of software development tools that come in an installable package and make developing software easier. With SDKs, you have a framework and template from which to work.
If you want to program an AR app, consider Google’s ARCore or Apple’s ARKit. Or explore the several other artificial reality SDKs out there. Simply choose one that best suits your project and skills.
If you want to develop a VR app, look into which platform you want your VR app to run on. Most major VR platforms, like HTC, PlayStation, and Oculus Rift, have their own SDKs available to use.
Whatever your interest in VR or AR, it is important to know what each can offer. That way, you can pursue the one appropriate for your project.
Outlook for AR and VR
The future of AR and VR is promising. The technologies are growing fast and the ability to develop programs for them has never been easier. AR and VR will have a major impact on video gaming, online business and marketing, social media, education, and professional training.
Fortunately, the markets for both AR and VR have plenty of room for competition. They are not yet dominated by only a select few players.
But the dominant AR market players include Google LLC, Seiko Epson Corporation, Vuzix Corporation, RealWear Inc., Toshiba Corporation, and Vuforia.
And the major VR market players are Oculus VR LLC, Sony Corporation, Samsung Co. Ltd., Google LLC, and Lenovo Group Ltd.
No matter the industry, AR and VR will always require substantial software development. If you are interested in AR or VR software development, consider the many industries looking to incorporate them into their businesses. I have mentioned some, but there are many more worth looking into, not to mention some that have yet to consider AR or VR at all.
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