Virtual reality types explained

Chris Torney / 06 December 2016

Virtual reality is becoming an increasingly hot topic, not least thanks to the recent success of games like Pokémon Go and gadgets like Google Cardboard.



The term ‘virtual reality’ is widely used to describe three different forms of technology – “true” virtual reality as well as mixed reality and augmented reality. So what are the key differences?

Virtual reality

This usually describes being “immersed” in entirely artificial surroundings, most commonly by using a special headset with a built-in screen such as Google Cardboard or Oculus Rift.

What is Google Cardboard?

The images and sound produced by the headset fool your senses into thinking you are inside whatever environment has been created. In some forms of virtual reality, sensors on your body mean that your actual movements – such as walking or gestures – are translated into movement in the virtual world you are experiencing.

At a simpler level, the 360-degree photos and videos recently popularised on social media sites like Facebook could also be classed as a type of virtual reality.

Your guide to taking 360° photos for Facebook

Augmented reality

Google Glass is perhaps the best known example of augmented reality: this is a pair of spectacles with special lenses that let you see the world as normal, but which also act as screens that display text or images as a sort of overlay.

Augmented reality can be used to add information to whatever you can actually see – this information could be visual, such as text or graphics, or it might take the form of sound or audio descriptions.

Mixed reality

As the name suggests, this is more of a combination of the real and the virtual worlds. The chief difference between augmented and mixed reality is that, in the latter, there is more interaction between what happens in the real world and the computer-generated imagery.

For example, if you were wearing a pair of mixed-reality goggles or lenses, it could appear that computer-generated characters were appearing in front of you – and you might be able to conduct a conversation or otherwise interact with them.

Pokémon Go – a game which shows cartoon characters appearing in the real world when it is viewed through a smartphone’s camera – is a very basic form of mixed reality.

What is Pokemon Go?

Generally speaking though, mixed reality is the most sophisticated of these types of technology at the moment and as such it has been developed the least. However, mixed-reality companies like US-based Magic Leap have managed to raise huge amounts of funding in recent months, so expect significant progress over the coming years.

Shifting terminology

As is common in the high-tech world, descriptions can change over time and the definitions set out above can be blurred. 

It could be that, in future, a single term – maybe mixed reality – could become a catch-all phrase used for many different applications. 

As ever, though, the most important thing is not what the technology is called: it’s what you can get out of it.

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