Do you know the difference between virtual and augmented reality?

When looking through digital solutions offered for museums and exhibitors, one regularly comes across various terms and abbreviations whose meaning might not be entirely clear. In this article, I would like to describe two of them: Virtual Reality, also known as VR, and Augmented Reality, known as AR. What do these terms describe and what are the differences between them?

Visual enhancement of the reality

We speak of augmented reality (AR) when we observe reality through an electronic device such us a tablet or a smartphone that shows us the real world with an additional layer of graphic components. How does the AR mechanism work? The device’s camera registers the real image and transmits it to an application which the users can download onto the device they already have. The application searches for coded patterns (the so-called “markers”) and adds a layer of graphic components to the registered image, creating an augmented reality image that the users can observe through their devices.

Museums can use augmented reality in a variety of ways. One of them can be placing an empty pedestal in the middle of the room with a printed marker on it. The visitors looking at it with their naked eyes would see only an empty space with a strange graphic sign. However, when they look at it using a device equipped with an appropriate application, a pre-designed, three-dimensional image will appear on the pedestal. It would be possible to admire it from all angles, too – the visitors could walk around it, zooming in and out, potentially even changing and moving the object they are looking at.

The augmented reality allows museums to freely exhibit 3D objects, such as digital projections of the museum’s precious collections. Thanks to AR, it is possible to have a closer look at the exhibits – as a result, admiring the valuable and protected artefacts is not only safer but also economically justified. The graphically exhibited object doesn’t have to be physically present at the exhibition, and the mobile device – which the visitors use – already belongs to them.

To simplify this: the world of augmented reality is an observable real world with three-dimensional virtual elements added and visible through a mobile device.

Entering the virtual world…

Virtual reality (VR) is a term that defines a set of techniques whose aim is to create a sense of being in a completely different (virtual) environment. To be able to participate in this world, a headset is needed – the so-called “VR goggles”, which, unlike standard glasses, are equipped with special display screens (more about VR can be found in this article). With such a device, a person can be submerged in real time in an entirely computer-generated world.

VR versus AR

Unlike augmented reality, virtual reality requires significant expenditure for the purchase of hardware – a good desktop computer with a modern graphics card and quite expensive VR goggles. In addition, exhibition administrators should also consider employment or training of a person to support such an installation. The glasses are quite easy to damage. Additionally, users experiencing VR for the first time often need help. Only one person can participate in the virtual reality experience at a time (unless there have been more goggle sets prepared).

VR and AR worlds are also very different in terms of image quality and participant’s experience. With virtual reality, the experience will be much deeper. In this alternative, the participant will not be relying on the graphics superimposed on the camera image or be dependent on the lighting conditions in the room (which can have a significant impact on the quality of the image displayed on the mobile device). The world of VR also has its downsides: since VR goggles completely obscure the world around, some people may experience dizziness and even nausea – so extra care should be taken when showing them to elderly people and to children under 12 years of age.

To sum up, if a user looks through a tablet or a phone (and only through those devices) and can observe a modified version of reality, we are dealing with augmented reality (AR). If the experience requires them to wear goggles and completely isolates from the world around, it is an experience of virtual reality (VR).


Unity3D Developer