The Virtuality Continuum for Dummies

By Michael Major

Do you watch TV, surf the internet, or occasionally leave your residence and talk to other human beings? If you can answer yes to any of those conditions, you have probably heard of virtual reality, augmented reality, or mixed reality. Perhaps you have seen one of Samsung’s Gear VR commercials, played Pokemon GO, taken a Microsoft Hololens for a test drive, or watched a YouTube video about the mysterious Magic Leap. If you are anything like me, then your first experiences with these new realities left you with a lot of questions like What do the terms Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Mixed Reality even mean? What are the differences between VR/AR/MR? Google searches may bring you to confusing articles about the science that makes the blending of realities possible, which is extremely overwhelming. So let’s break these concepts down into terms that we can all understand.

The first step to understanding the virtuality continuum is grasping the difference between the real environment (blue section labeled RE on left in the diagram below) and a completely virtual environment (labeled VR on the right in the diagram below).


The real environment is the physical space that you are in. For example, I am sitting in a real chair, at my real desk, in a real room as I am writing this.

I can feel the keys on my keyboard, see my co-workers walk to the break room, hear them describe their weekends, smell the coffee that gets brewed, and taste the sandwich that I brought for lunch.

A completely virtual environment is a digital environment that a user enters by wearing a headset.

So let’s say I load up theBlu (a VR application that lets the user experience deep sea diving) and put on the HTC Vive headset and a good pair of noise cancelling headphones. I will no longer see or hear any of my co-workers, or anything else from the room that I am physically standing in. Instead, I will see and hear giant whales! I am also able to look around in all directions as though I am actually there in the ocean.

The next step to understanding the Virtuality Continuum is knowing the difference between augmented reality (teal section labeled AR in the diagram below) and augmented virtuality (green section labeled AV in the diagram below).


Augmented reality involves layering digital content on top of a live view of the physical space that you are in. A fun example of this is how Vespa, a company that sells motorized scooters, hired a company called 900lbs of Creative to create an augmented reality app that lets you customize your own scooter by holding your phone up to their ad in a magazine as if you were going to take a picture of it.

The app recognizes the blue pattern on the page of the magazine and then adds the 3D model of the scooter to the screen on top of that blue pattern. Without this app, the man would just be looking at a magazine sitting on a table, instead of being able to see both the magazine and a digital scooter that he can customize and even drive around on the table!

Augmented virtuality is when objects from the user’s real-world environment are added to the virtual environment that the user is experiencing. Let’s dive back into theBlu to explore an example of augmented virtuality. Imagine that I have added some sensors to the front of the Vive headset. These sensors have the ability to recognize my hands and track their movements. Now I can turn this completely virtual experience into an augmented virtuality experience in which I can see and use my hands inside the virtual environment.

Note: these sensors are not yet available for VR headsets (as of December 2016). However, Intel has a product called Intel RealSense Technology which allows cameras to sense depth and is used in some computer and mobile phone applications. But let’s imagine that I do have this kind of sensor for the Vive.

With this new technology, I could add cool features to theBlu such as the ability to pick up virtual seashells with my hands instead of using a controller to do so. Or I could swim around in the virtual ocean by doing a breaststroke instead of holding down a button on the controller. This would make my virtual experience much more immersive.

The last step in understanding the virtuality continuum is figuring out what people mean when they refer to mixed reality (green section labeled MR in the figure below).


By definition, the term mixed reality means “the merging of real and virtual worlds to produce new environments and visualizations where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time.” So augmented reality and augmented virtuality are both technically under the mixed reality umbrella because they are mixing the real world with digital content in some way or another. However, a company called Magic Leap has recently started to refer to their experience as a mixed reality experience in an effort to set themselves apart from augmented reality and augmented virtuality technologies. When Magic Leap uses the term mixed reality, it is meant to describe a technology that makes it difficult for the user to discern between what is real and what is digital, as if everything that the user is experiencing is part of the real world. I must admit, if the videos that Magic Leap has released are accurate, then their technology really is in a league of its own. Take a look at their website and decide for yourself.

There you have it, the Virtuality Continuum. Now you will know what people are talking about when they refer to virtual reality, augmented reality, or anything in between.


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