Augmented reality (AR) vs. virtual reality (VR): What’s the difference?

Augmented reality (AR) vs. virtual reality (VR): What’s the difference?

Augmented reality and virtual reality are often confused – but they’re more like technology cousins than twins. Let’s explain both in plain terms and examine some AR and VR use cases

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Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are often talked about in the same breath ­– and that can make sense for, say, measuring the market for these related capabilities. “AR and VR do share a lot of commonalities,” says Tom Emrich, AR/VR expert and managing director of Augmented World Expo. “And in a future of head-worn devices, these technologies will feel more like two sides of the same coin; the same device will allow us to experience augmented reality or virtual reality, depending on how much of the real world is necessary.”

 “For people who’ve never actually seen an AR or VR device, it's very easy to assume everything is VR.”

However, AR and VR today are two distinct things – more like cousins than twins. VR gets much more coverage and AR can be more nebulous given the various ways in which it can be deployed, says Leon Laroue, technical product manager of augmented reality solutions for Epson. “For people who’ve never actually seen an AR or VR device, it’s very easy to assume everything is VR.”

Since AR and VR are not one and the same, they require business leaders to devise different strategies for implementing these technologies in their organizations. Let's clarify the differences and look at some real-world examples.

[ Want a primer? Read also: How to explain augmented reality in plain English. ]

AR vs. VR: Key differences

AR lets the user experience the real world, which has been digitally augmented or enhanced in some way. VR, on the other hand, removes the user from that real-world experience, replacing it with a completely simulated one.

Because VR requires complete immersion, VR devices shut out the physical world completely.

Because VR requires complete immersion, VR devices shut out the physical world completely. The lens on the smart glasses that deliver AR capabilities, on the other hand, are transparent. Understanding these differences is critical in determining the best use cases for each.

AR vs. VR use cases

“At a high level, AR applications are best suited for use cases where users need to be connected to and present in the real world,” Laroue explains. Some AR enterprise solutions include remote assistance, on-the-job training, remote collaboration, and computer-assisted tasks.

“In our research of both technologies, we have found AR to be well-suited for industrial use cases, particularly workforce training and product maintenance,” says Michael M. Campbell, executive vice president, augmented reality products, at PTC. In particular, companies that are facing knowledge gaps and expertise loss as workers retire are capturing that knowledge digitally and sharing it with less-experienced workers via AR tools.

Maintenance professionals don AR headsets to record and narrate their tasks – which will then be used to train millennial workers.

One example: Honeywell is dealing with an aging workforce. Instead of writing out training documents, its veteran maintenance professionals don AR headsets to record and narrate their tasks – which will then be used to train millennial workers in a hands-on but digitally assisted way. The company says workers trained in this fashion tend to retain 80 percent of what they’ve learned, compared to 20 to 30 percent when they read a manual.

VR applications are best suited for simulation or complete immersion: Think remote collaboration with 3D elements, point-of-view training, and virtual tours. The Johnson & Johnson Institute, for example, developed virtual reality software to improve training for orthopedic surgeons and nurses. Walmart uses VR to create both unlikely scenarios (such as weather emergencies) and common ones to give associates a first-hand training experience without disrupting operations.

[ What are some other real-world examples? Read our related article: 5 interesting AR/VR projects in action. ]

AR vs. VR in the future

During the next three to five years, AR and VR will continue to be applied in different ways. “They serve different purposes and offer different value propositions,” says Laroue. However, Emrich notes, if wearables become more mainstream in the enterprise, these capabilities may converge more with time.

[ Want lessons learned from CIOs applying AI? Get the full HBR Analytic Services report, An Executive’s Guide to Real-World AI. ]

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Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.

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