• Upanishad Sharma

Explainer: what exactly are Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Realities?


With all this talk about Virtual and Augmented reality, you must be left feeling confused about what they are and why they are relevant for an everyday joe? Well, they aren’t. Not until you’re someone who regularly consumes content other than just print and television. However, the interest in delivering news in new ways has been on the rise for a few years now.


With changing times, journalists are trying to adapt everywhere. And with this, we read on to understand what all these realities are.



What is Immersive Reality?


In a nutshell, the concept of immersive reality is creating an atmosphere which makes use of a person’s senses to transport them away from their current environment to an artificial one. Whatever the situation may be, it looks and feels as close to real life as it can be because of the viewer’s complete physical and mental absorption.


NASA Ames's 1985 VIEW headset Source: Sanjay Acharya/ Wikimedia

The concept of these realities started decades ago when visual information tracking in various fields was gaining importance. The model above was created in 1985 to generate images of a pilots' perception in flight. However, in the following years, their relevance became increasingly important as the Internet was made public and new services came up.


Think about your online behaviour for example. Browsing the internet, you consume all kinds of content. You go on YouTube, look up a video and sometimes don’t even play it when you see the long timestamp. Most people online are the same way. It doesn’t matter if it is an article, a video or a voice note; everybody is used to instant gratification and quick entertainment.


Therefore, it’s incredibly important to capture people’s attention and what better way to do that by pulling them into a separate universe.


TL;DR – Any technology which transports you to an artificial world thereby completely immersing you in it.



What is Virtual Reality?


Using a head-mounted Display (HMD), Virtual Reality uses hardware present in computers and smartphones to simulate artificial environments. The device allows the user to view pre-rendered scenarios through its lenses.



Virtual Reality Headset GIF by: Oculus/GIPHY

However, along with the headset, the entire VR kit includes spatial tracking, which means it records your movements as you wear the HMD and controllers to take input from your side.

Worlds experienced in Virtual Reality leave people with a sense of wonder as if coming back from an incredible journey. Imagine your favourite book coming to life. A VR headset allows that through its ingenious use HD visuals, audio and body tracking.


TL;DR – Virtual Reality takes you to a digital world using a combination of a virtual headset, studio sound and body tracking.



What do you see in Virtual Reality?


The type of content you experience while wearing the headset depends on the content you’re consuming. As of right now, two kinds of material dominate the Virtual Reality market.


The first and most shared content in VR is artificially rendered animations which includes popular video games, google experiences and basic animations designed to be used in the HMD.


The virtual reality industry’s bread and butter are currently video games and these renditions. The second and equally important part is the 360° videos. These videos are shot using omnidirectional cameras and are produced by journalists or independent content creators as an attempt in making a partly immersive virtual experience. Check out the 360° image below and move it around yourself for the full effect.


A 360 image in action by: Abhilash Mallick



What’s the difference?


The main difference between these two is the amount of effort, resources and skills they take to be produced.


The completely rendered virtual reality scenarios, also known as ‘True VR’ require a generous amount of money and time. This type of coding is mostly done by mainstream video game companies or movie studios.


True virtual reality dominates the field right now with companies like Oculus and HTC signing deals with popular studios for immersive video games.


However, journalism is more focused towards 360° videos as they are becoming increasingly affordable to produce because of readily available equipment. News organisations like The New York Times, The Guardian and even wildlife channels like National Geographic have entire departments dedicated to creating 360° videos for journalism.


Furthermore, various virtual reality projects have borne fruit which we will talk about later. Now let’s move on to AR.



Now, what’s this Augmented Reality?


Imagine that you’re in a new city, hungry and walking down a street. Your phone's compass is messing with the maps application and irritation is setting in. You hold your phone upright, and arrows start to appear which tell you exactly where to go. However, something is different about them. Somehow, they are floating on your screen like they’re right in front of you. How? Welcome to the world of augmented reality.


For two years, Google has been pushing this very feature on its navigation app ‘Maps’. In the way, virtual reality takes you to a different world; augmented does the exact opposite. Through the power of a smartphone's lens, augmented reality takes the world around you and adds visual elements which look and feel real.


Remember Pokemon Go? Millions of people walking over the world throwing collecting imaginary Pokemon but somehow they appeared incredibly vivid.


This process of bringing the digital content to the real world is made possible using advanced computer algorithms, which in turn work with your smartphone’s camera and deliver these elements.


Like VR, augmented reality has been around for a long time too. The relationship between human and computer interaction has been experimented with as far back as the '60s.

VR and AR are also combined by tech giants like Microsoft, which are experimenting in a new headset which is dubbed ‘ Mixed Reality.’ More on that below.


TL;DR – Augmented Reality takes the visuals of VR and brings it to your world using your smartphone screen.



Content Variation


Since Augmented Reality is more cost-effective and feasible when compared to VR; its application also differs in the type of content it produces. It turns out AR can be used for a lot more than previously envisioned. If you want to see how AR is helpful, look for more news under Sphere 2. Since people like visual attractions in general, it is only natural that they respond more to visual cues even in the simplest of tasks like walking down a street or picking out a lens for their new glasses.


However, that is not to say that augmented reality is just the newest fad. AR is also being used in precise fields such as medicine, construction and designing. Since AR brings almost anything to life, it is natural that it possesses importance.



Mixed Reality


One might think that due to HoloLens, Microsoft came up with this term. However, Mixed Reality has been in development since the 1990s. Nonetheless, the company is responsible for driving significant progress towards this path.

HoloLens 2 Image by: Microsoft Press

Mixed Reality, in essence, is the combination of VR and AR designed to blend visual and digital elements in the real world. MR headsets have cameras installed around them which capture the reality and merge the VR elements right into it. Microsoft has been teaming up with various companies like Acer, Dell, Lenovo and Samsung to produce affordable headsets.


Acer MR Headset, Image by: Photozou.jp

The significant difference between VR/AR and MR is the price range. Since MR is a blend of the other two, headsets designed are not being treated as competitors of VR and AR. Mixed Reality sees itself as more suited for industry-based solutions. Nonetheless, MR headsets are not to be confused with Microsoft’s Hololens 2, which is the much costlier and expanded version of the same tech.


I hope you now have a better grip on what immersive realities are. Go back and find out what's been going on in this field and how journalists are experimenting with them to produce immersive content.

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