Virtual Reality vs Augmented Reality: which one is better?

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are two of the buzzwords of the moment, since these ones are technologies that are forecasted to have huge success in the future, that will change completely our everyday life. Analysts always show amazing numbers about their future markets, but these numbers always prove to be wrong, since VR is going slower than expected (it is probable it will take off in 2019) and AR still has lots of problems. But we all agree the fact that these technologies will have a bright future and if all big companies like Google, Microsoft and Apple have entered this world, it does mean that we’re into something really big. But there is a question that a lot of people always make: is it better AR or VR?

Let’s start clarifying one thing: despite the fact that AR and VR are always cited together, they’re different technologies. Yes, you’ve read well: they’re different. They are some kind of relative techs, they have some similarities, some overlaps and in the future they may even be used through the same device… but they represent something distinct and have completely different purposes. So, the question does not have sense since the beginning: it is like asking if it is better to have a child or a cat… yes, they both are cute… yes, they both can keep you company… but they are completely distinct things.

grumpy cat vr
Maybe a child is better… (Image from Pinterest)
Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality is a technology that isolate you completely from the surrounding world. It is like a teleportation to another place, where you are completely detached from the real environment you’re actually in. How much this simulation is good depends on the technology employed: at present time we’re quite good in simulating video, audio and decent in emulating hands interaction (via controllers like Oculus Touch, Leap Motion or Vive Knuckles), but there are people out there already fantasizing about a complete The-Matrix-like emulation. Virtual Reality has a big enemy and this is the motion sickness: its app have to be properly designed or they provoke nausea in its users.

VR is awesome for all those applications that require the user to complete isolate himself from his current existence. For instance, imagine VR travels: with VR travels you don’t want to remember that you are actually inside your room, at the contrary you want to completely forget that… you want to feel like being on the Caribbean Seaside, sunbathing and relaxing. With VR relaxation tools, it is the same: you want to completely concentrate on the relaxing environment and on the soothing voice of the “therapist”. Other applications requiring a complete immersions are for instance:

  • Training (e.g. in safety training, you want your users to truly believe that they’re in a fire emergency)
  • Rehabilitation
  • Psychology (reasons are similar to the ones of relaxation apps)
  • Gaming (in Robo Recall you want to really feel as you were fighting those damn robots)
  • Etc…

So, VR is awesome when you want the user to completely teleport himself somewhere else.

Augmented reality

Augmented Reality is a technology that enhances what you see, adding virtual elements to your current vision. Watch the video below that has been made using the ARKit framework, which is having an amazing success in these days:

As you can see, there is the standard vision of the world, but onto it there are added virtual objects that have a clear physical positioning inside the real world. So, AR is a way to add virtual objects to the real world: so, on a table, instead of a real cup you can just put a virtual cup… with the only difference that you can’t drink it…

Augmented reality offers a way to add objects onto our current vision of the world. This has huge implications, since it opens a lot of possibilities: basically it could enhance our vision in every moment of our life. The only thing that is actually necessary is that we look through an augmented reality screen (smartphone or AR glass) and let it help us. Of course with AR glasses it is better, since we can easily wear them all day and have also our hands free to do all our daily tasks. How is the quality of AR experiences at the moment? Mediocre, since as I’ve already said, the best AR device that is out there, that is the HoloLens, has huge problems (like low field of view and poor hands detection) and it is still not that usable by random people.

What could it be useful for? Well, really, almost everything. For instance, Google Maps could tell us the characteristics of the shops we’ve around us and guide us to reach any destination by following instructions that are completely in front of our eyes.

It could also be used for:

  • Tele-assistance (e.g. if my car has a problem while I’m on the highway, my mechanic could see the problem and tell me how I can fix it by giving detailed instructions in front of my eyes)

  • Shopping (the glass could analyze the product I’m buying and helping me in choosing the best ones, for instance)
  • Entertainment (as Zuckerberg says, why have a physical TV when I can buy a TV app and attach it virtually to my house wall?)
  • Gaming (gaming requiring a physical bond to the actual place are awesome in VR… imagine if robotic ships could come out from your walls and fire at you!)

  • Medicine (a surgeon from the other part of the world can assist another surgeon in making a complex surgery)
  • Etc…

AR is awesome when we can add something to enhance the context where the user is currently in.

AR vs VR

As you can see from the previous paragraph, the question has actually few sense: one is a technology that is optimal for context-less teleportations, while the other one is used for context-ful augmentations. I can hardly imagine a scenario where one technology can super-sede the other, since to me they’re different. Of course there are areas of overlap: Robo Recall, for instance, could be also a fantastic AR game, but it had to be completely rewritten. The plot would have been “there are robots that have entered inside your house and you have to kill them”, it would have been a enemy waves shooter game. Pokemon Go could be cool in VR, too, but it would have been a game where I had to catch Pokemons inside the original environment of the cartoon, I wouldn’t have felt as being surrounded by Pokemons in my home town. But for instance I can’t imagine a VR travel situation in AR or a tele-assistance app in VR.

So there is no technology that will win in the end, they will coexist: some days ago I made an example about gaming, telling that AR gaming is like smartphone one while VR gaming is like console one. This analogy is due to the fact that AR games can be played everywhere (so it is ok for casual gaming, too) while VR gaming are immersive and require the user to be fully dedicated to it (like playing a war game on a console). Smartphone games and console games are not in competition… they easily coexist in this world, since they have different purposes and targets. There will not be a “winner in the long term”. AR and VR are exactly in the same situation.

The only thing where it has sense to make a comparison is business. I mean, when people ask if it is more profitable entering AR or VR. And here the answer is simple: in the short term, VR; on the long term, AR.

Virtual Reality is a techhnology already usable and various consumer headset are already there and more have to come. There are millions of VR users out there and a good amount of apps, even if these are pretty biased in being male-oriented games. Some AAA games like Fallout 4 VR have already being announced and this awesome content will attract even more users to this market.

VR is already inside TV commercials and there’s a good awareness of this tech. VR ecosystem is still in its infancy but it has started and it is rapidly growing. That’s why it is already possible to do some business within VR. Even here in Italy, where we are far behind the US, now companies are investing in VR for B2B applications.

AR, at the contrary, is just at its beginning: smartphone-based AR has had a boom thanks to Pokemon Go (and now to ARKit), so everyone knows what it is… but we all know that the true AR is the one obtained through the use of glasses like HoloLens. Reason is that only with glasses you can wear AR all day and have hands free to interact in a natural way with your augmented world. But as I’ve said, we’re just at the first iterations of these devices and the only one demonstrating potential is the HoloLens that has a huge price ($3000) and lots of issues. Very few people have an AR glass and most of them are innovators or companies needing them for running enterprise applications. If VR is in its infancy, AR has just born. And situation is not predicted to get well soon, since a rumor showed that next generation of HoloLens will be released in 2019. In the short term the only thing that will change will be that smartphones AR apps will be more thanks to frameworks like ARKit, Facebook Camera or Vuforia.

So at present time, AR hasn’t a big business potential. But in the future it will be enormous. As I’ve said, it has a bazillion possible applications… and since it is a technology that we will wear the whole day, it will be pervasive, it will be completely part of our life.

Forecasted tournaround for AR market is enormous… and this image by Digi-Capital is present almost everywhere

AR vs VR market
Comparison of forecasted AR and VR market in 2020 (Source Digi-Capital)

As you can see, AR will outperform VR by at least a factor of 3, so it will surely be a more profitable tech. I don’t expect this forecast to be completely exact (as I’ve said, often these previsions are overly optimistics), but I expect the trend they show to be the real one.

A last info: in my opinion (and a lot of people thinks the same) in the long run we’ll have a single device letting people do both AR and VR: imagine it like a headset where lenses are transparent for AR applications and opaque for VR ones. This way the difference between the two technologies will become even more blurred.

Hope this article has helped you to have a clearer vision of the differences between AR and VR and what are the reasons to choose one of the two. If you found it useful, please share it with other innovators and subscribe to my newsletter!

(Header image by Kingsland USA)


AR/VR developer, startupper, zombie killer. Sometimes I pretend I can blog, but actually I've no idea what I'm doing. I tried to change the world with my startup Immotionar, offering super-awesome full body virtual reality, but now the dream is over. But I've still not waken up...