Technology has already given us so much, but through major improvements in recent years, it’s become capable of meaningfully enhancing and changing our perception of reality. After decades of alluring holodeck-style fictions, we finally have mainstream-viable options of two distinct types: one that almost anyone can use, and another that remains a relative rarity.

These two options are known as AR and VR, and it’s been fascinating to see them enter various industries and see use for creative purposes. But what exactly are AR and VR? What makes them distinct technologies, and how are they similar? Do they overlap? And — most significantly — do they factor into the future of your business? Let’s answer these questions.

What AR and VR Involve

AR stands for Augmented Reality, and though the execution of AR technology varies, the process is always the same: combining live real-world content and digital content to enhance one or both of them. The most well-known example of AR at this point is the Pokémon Go phenomenon: real locations and camera streams were layered with digital gameplay, creating an experience that went beyond what could otherwise be accomplished.

Because AR must involve actual reality (for it to be “augmented”), it’s much easier to achieve. Even the smallest amount of digital addition (flavoring 99% reality with 1% augmentation) counts as AR — and with smartphones and their cameras becoming fairly capable, AR has become the practical tool of choice for anyone looking to create futuristic content.

VR, however, stands for Virtual Reality, and is the more famous concept by far: not enhancing but replacing the real-world experience with a fully digital environment. Who hasn’t imagined putting on a futuristic helmet and being transported to a digital wonderland? Or thought about the world envisioned in The Matrix — a world where nothing, and everything, is real. However, it wasn’t until the first Oculus Rift achieved massive success that VR became a realistic option.

VR is much more demanding in terms of barrier to entry, because the average smartphone won’t provide a great experience. Though there are cheap headsets that make it possible to use smartphones as VR screens, the quality of that approach isn’t going to come close to what can be done with a fully-fledged dedicated headset.

How These Technologies are Currently Used

AR content has been gathering momentum for some time now, with plenty of big businesses getting in on the action. Pokémon Go is just one example, but there have been numerous efforts at comparable AR games on mobile platforms — both the Play Store and the App Store are flooded with them.

The appeal of AR is obvious: almost anyone can use it, and it ties in perfectly to easily-produced gimmicks. I don’t mean that word to be derisive — what I want to get across is that AR is perfect for small pieces of creative flair that catch the eye. But it’s found more practical value in the fashion, beauty, eye care and furniture industries, where it’s extremely useful for allowing potential customers to virtually preview products before they order them.

And then there’s the use of AR as an educational tool, providing information in an overlay when prompted. An AR app in a store can label the products you’re looking at, or help you navigate to a certain item — in a museum, it can provide on-demand historical context.

VR content, though, remains somewhat rare. The main reason for this is that the hardware remains expensive, cumbersome, and uncomfortable. People are used to looking at their phones for hours every day, so AR isn’t a hard sell. Strapping a large headset to your face for even just 30 minutes is a tougher proposition. And though a headset may be less expensive than a high-end smartphone, the smartphone is vastly more useful in general.

So the current use for VR is largely for gaming, with some media consumption thrown in. Games can take full advantage of what a virtual environment can offer, and the scene is beginning to thrive now that costs are coming down: the PlayStation 4 has the popular PSVR system, and PC users have options including Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Windows Mixed Reality headsets.

It’s true that VR is also finding use for educational purposes, but the high cost is still a big limiting factor preventing schools and colleges from investing too heavily in it. In the coming years, today’s high-end headset might fall to a price point cheap enough for the average consumer — if that happens, VR might finally take off in a big way.

Anticipating Combined Solutions

While AR and VR are currently clearly distinct, it’s really due to the implementation. Creating AR content is about parsing live data from the nearby environment and processing digital elements to fit what’s been picked up, while creating VR content is about taking a blank slate and filling it with a rich virtual world.

Each of these processes is demanding in its own way, but imagine technology reaching the point at which it’s possible to get a lightweight and comfortable wrap-around headset capable of acting as a visor or a screen. Such a tool would be capable of AR or VR, meaning that a single application could use however much real-world data it wanted.

We can look at how AR/VR content is already being introduced to the ecommerce world, with the prospect of tying online and offline retail together in a compelling way. Industry giant Shopify has made a lot of noise around supporting AR and VR options, and given the well-established accessibility of ecommerce as a career path (pretty much anyone can start an online store, or even buy one — there are surprising benefits to the latter), there’s every reason to think that the ecommerce landscape will be a huge source of AR and VR content in the near future.

The point is this: at the moment, AR and VR are distinct because of the hardware and software needed to use them, but that might not always be the case. One day, we may be enjoying virtual experiences and be left wondering which parts are augmented and which are wholly virtual. It’s an exciting thought (though also a mildly-terrifying one!).

The Value of Rich Digital Content

So what does any of this mean for your business? Well, there’s an excellent chance that you’re looking to the future and wondering how you need to adapt your methods. What’s this cloud computing you’ve been reading about? What should you be automating? How should you be updating your marketing strategy to suit new generations?

AR and VR technologies are very relevant to that last question, because the newest generations are growing up viewing AR and VR content as entirely conventional. The notion of watching VR streams doesn’t seem odd to them, nor does downloading an AR app when attending an event to gain access to more information and entertainment.

Consequently, I suggest thinking carefully about how you could work AR (or possibly even VR) content into your marketing. Try looking through this collection of great AR projects to get some inspiration and learn about how businesses have achieved success with it. And if you conclude that AR and VR content just aren’t a good fit for your business? Well, that’s fine. It’s entirely plausible, and there’s no sense in throwing money after a new technology for the sake of it. But at least you’ll know that you reviewed the option and didn’t miss out on something great.

AR and VR technologies have been around for a while now, but they have so much more room to grow. They’re still not unavoidable, but the time is coming when every business with ambition will need to factor them in somehow, so why not do it now and get ahead of the curve?


Matthew Scyoc

Matthew is owner of Sunglass.io. He employs a close-knit group of engineers to develop the technical content on the site, but is passionate about everything engineering. Matthew loves the future of 3D modeling and wants to push for more helpful, useful tools for the engineering community. Feel free to reach out to him directly on the Contact page or on LinkedIn!