What Is the Difference between Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality?

Mary McMahon

Virtual reality and augmented reality use much of the same technology to provide enriched experiences for users. Augmented systems add something to the existing environment to enhance the real world, while virtual systems actually create an entirely new reality. Both have a wide range of applications, from advertising to psychotherapy, and a number of companies have investments in one or both technologies. They are also subjects of research at academic institutions and private organizations.

A virtual reality simulates real-world experiences in a built environment.
A virtual reality simulates real-world experiences in a built environment.

In the case of virtual reality, the key characteristic is that with the use of a computer system, the user enters an entirely immersive world. Everything around the user is fabricated by the system. This may display inside a blank room, headset, or other device that allows the user to feel present in the virtual environment. Some virtual reality also offers features like feedback in the form of sound or touch to allow the user to interact with objects and spaces. This simulates real-world experiences in an entirely built environment.

Virtual and augmented reality technology has been used to treat individuals suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
Virtual and augmented reality technology has been used to treat individuals suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

In contrast, augmented reality takes place in the real world, with added virtual elements. These can include sounds, sensations, or images generated by a computer system. Haptic feedback which consists of vibrations and other sensations on computer equipment, for example, is a form of augmented reality that enhances the experience for the operator. Likewise, advertising campaigns that involve projections of images into real-world spaces are another type of augmented reality.

There can be a blend between virtual reality and augmented reality. Features like haptic feedback in a virtual video game could be considered augmentations, rather than strict virtual reality. Conversely, people may work in a real-world environment with a simulated construct that closely approaches those seen in virtual reality. Passengers at an air terminal, for instance, might talk to a holographic representation of an airline employee.

The applications for virtual reality and augmented reality are considerable. Both are of interest to the entertainment industry, which constantly seeks new ways to appeal to consumers. Immersive, rich environments provide opportunities for gaming, interactive websites, and other forms of entertainment. In the sciences, such tools can be used for activities like remote surgery, treating patients with post traumatic stress disorder, and simulating natural disasters and other events. Training tools with a virtual reality element can offer a chance for people to experience things that are rare or dangerous in real life to get experience they may find useful in their work.

In the case of virtual reality, a user can enter an immersive world with the use of a computer system.
In the case of virtual reality, a user can enter an immersive world with the use of a computer system.

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Discussion Comments


@JaneAir - That's a pretty neat idea. I liked the idea the article mentioned-a holographic employee interacting with customers.

I think this could be a great idea for people who work in high risk environments, such as gas stations in bad neighborhoods. Instead of being in the gas station, they could interact with customers holographically and operate everything remotely. I definitely think it could be done. Then if someone tried to hold up a gas station, they wouldn't be holding up an actual person.


I think that virtual reality could have great applications in desensitization therapy. This kind of therapy exposes individuals with phobias to the thing they are afraid of slowly, so they eventually get over their fear (hopefully).

However, it seems like it could get complicated if they were afraid of flying, or bridges or something. Virtual reality could allow therapists to simulate those thing in the safety of an office. This would also be great for someone who is afraid of a certain animal. Instead of having to eventually get the animal, you could use virtual reality.

I hope someone is already working on this!


@David09 - The fun stuff is certainly worthwhile, but I like the idea of remote surgery. I’ve seen devices that doctors can hook up to in order to perform some of these remote surgical procedures.

I think there are only certain types of surgical procedures that are eligible for this kind of operation. Either way, I think it’s a great idea, because it enables the doctor to leverage his time and get more done.

In the end, I believe it could even reduce medical costs.


I remember going to a theme park once and boarding a space flight simulator. I would have to say that this attraction used a combination of virtual reality and augmented reality.

The simulator tilts and turns until you are facing straight up, just as you would in a rocket. You face a screen which simulates the window and the controls. Then the thing starts moving and you “see” yourself careening into space on the screen.

The simulator shakes and vibrates on purpose to emulate the effects of the rocket’s vibrations. This is the haptic part of the simulation; you get immediate feedback at different intervals.

The level of realism is okay, but it sure can fool the kids. I remember taking my family aboard one such simulator, and at one point my boy turned to me and said, “Dad, are we in space?”


@SkyWhisperer - I think I know the virtual reality program you’re referring to. While I agree that addiction is not a good thing from the standpoint of the computer user, I believe that some people are counting on that very thing to happen.

In some of these games, companies can buy ad space and set up their businesses in a virtual world. In order for them to be successful, I think they would court users who spend a lot of time in the virtual reality space and end up doing much of their buying online.

These users make their purchases using cyber currency, which they can acquire with real cash. I’ve never understood why anyone would buy stuff in a virtual world when they could easily surf to the company’s website and make their purchases that way. But that’s the nature of addiction I suppose.


Some time ago I downloaded a popular virtual reality program to my computer. It was actually Internet based and allowed you to experience online virtual worlds with vast topography like you would experience in the real world.

You could scale mountains, travel to far flung exotic destinations, look at maps, interact with other people and so on. In the game I was represented by an avatar which I could dress to look any way I wanted, and I interacted with other avatars.

My opinion is that these kinds of games are okay, as long as you don’t let them become addictive. I can just see someone spending hours on end living in a virtual world and losing complete touch with reality, ultimately spending more time online than they do in interacting with people.

I never did that. Actually, I got bored with it after awhile; there were too many demands on my time.

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