360, augmented, virtual and mixed reality – the big confusion
All of the above technologies are very hot. Not a day goes by without some newspaper article, trending topic or TV report on the virtual reality we apparently all need to be in ASAP. Unfortunately, the lack of accuracy in describing the technologies and naming the respective products makes it very hard for the (non-)techie to understand the difference between 360, AR and VR. There is a tendency to label even a simple 360° video as “VR”. Not only consumers get confused, but business users with opportunities for applications lose track of the requirements and possibilities.
360° video” is like any normal video recording, except that the field of view covers 360 degrees, so the camera records everything around it. Some setups record a true dome – including the ceiling/sky and the floor/ground – while others record a 360 degree horizontal band that doesn’t include up and down views. Some cameras do not cover the full view and are limited to 180 or 270 degrees.
You can record monoscopic 360° video or go for stereostopic 3D 360° video. Stereoscopic 3D 360° video gives the impression of depth and solidity and amplifies immersion.
To watch 360° video, you need goggles with a head tracker, so that when you turn your head, you “look around” in the 360 degree video image. Some of these goggles use your smartphone (and its sensors) to provide the 360° experience (Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear, ...). Finally, some video players allow you to use the smartphone as a viewport on the 360° image, so you move the smartphone to see different part of the video.
The main limitation of 360° video is that there is no interactivity with the environment. As a viewer, you can look around within the sphere of the image, but you cannot decide to move in some direction or to grab objects. If you are moving in the surrounding, it is because the cameraman decided to move the camera at the time of the recording.
Augmented reality (AR)
This technology has been around for a while and has been applied in many apps and marketing campaigns. The idea is to point a smartphone or tablet to a marker or image, and the app will recognize the marker and superimpose graphics or video that is not really there. So the mobile screen will show an augmented image.
An alternative that doesn’t require a mobile device or app is sometimes used at trade fairs: a camera is mounted above a big screen on the wall, and the visitor holds up a marker, which is recognized by the camera. The screen will show the video image of the person, but augmented with additional video or animation.
Virtual reality (VR)
This technology is definitely the most immersive. Once you put on the goggles, you are in a different world and no longer see the room you are in. Often, this virtual world is created by 3D animators, but it can also be a mix of (stereoscopic) video and computer generated images. The key takeaway here is that the virtual world is rendered in real-time and interactive. Gaming is obviously a big application for this technology, but in business, there are great opportunities for training and marketing.
VR applications ideally need goggles that are either tethered to a fast PC, such as Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, which makes the setup cumbersome but allow for high end graphics, or self-contained, often consisting of a headset with a smartphone like Samsung Gear or Google Cardboard.
Mixed or merged reality (MR)
To avoid confusion with augmented reality, the term “mixed reality” or “merged realtiy” has been introduced for new devices like the Microsoft HoloLens. Contrary to VR, mixed reality uses semi-transparent goggles that still allow you to see your surroundings, but will add virtual content on top of the real life context. The system augments your reality with video, animation, graphics and web content. The difference with AR is that MR is much more sophisticated: it does not need markers, but scans the environment and “remembers” it, placing virtual content in the correct 3D perspective in the room. As you move, the perspective is adjusted in real time, leaving all virtual content correctly positioned against a wall or on furniture. Mixed reality has a huge potential in training and gaming. Unfortunately, the announced devices are only available to developers for the time being.