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The line between the virtual world and reality continues to break down, providing awe inspiring experiences that, not so long ago, could only be found in the imagination of sci-fi writers.

Virtual Reality (VR) has been the “next big thing” for several years, but its time to shine has finally come. VR is a way to generate realistic images, sounds, and other sensations that put you in the middle of a spectacular imaginary world. Augmented Reality (AR), which adds virtual stuff to your real-world environment, is contributing to the hype, and both technologies are likely to become a big part of our future. With Mixed Reality (MR), you can play a virtual video game, grab a real-world object, and smack an imaginary character from the game with the that object. Imagination and reality have never been so intertwined.

The History of Virtual Reality

We’ve been trying to create “Virtual Reality” for much longer than just the past five to ten years. There were popular look-through toys in the 1950s and enclosed flight simulators debuted in the 1960s, but the idea of VR goes back even further.

As early as the 1930s, science fiction writers, inventors, and tinkerers were dreaming of an environment where you could escape from reality via art and machines. We were weighing questions about Virtual Reality vs. Augmented Reality vs. Mixed Reality long before we had the technology to make them possible.

So much is happening so fast that the differences between VR, AR, and MR can seem a little confusing at first. Each of these wonderful technologies are accessible to almost everyone, but before you open your wallet for the latest head-mounted display, let’s take a closer look at what you’ll need for an amazing VR, AR, or MR experience.

Uses for Virtual Reality

From gaming, to movies, to medicine, the uses for Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Mixed Reality are expanding and seem limitless.

  • Healthcare—For surgical training
  • Film and TV—For movies and TV shows to create a more unique experience
  • Travel—For virtual trips to an art museum—or another planet—all from home
  • Sports—For programs like STRIVR to help pro and amateur athletes train
  • Gaming—For over 1,000 games already available, from first-person shooters to strategy games to role-playing adventures

Before We Begin, let’s define the terminology. Virtual Reality can be used as an umbrella of sorts to describe other technologies like, but different from, an actual Virtual Reality experience. But what’s the difference between Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality? Here are some more details:

Virtual Reality
Virtual reality (VR) requires the use of a headset, which transitions the user to a different reality. Most people have heard of VR devices like the Oculus RiftGo or Quest (even if they’ve never used one). A VR headset removes your vision of the real world; replacing your view of an entirely new virtual space. This space could be a game interface, a video, or a simulation for training purposes.

The possibilities for landscapes and locations in VR are limitless. Developers can use photographs of real-life scenes or computer-generated animation. This creates a 360-degree view of everything around the user.

Different VR devices offer varying degrees of engagement. The major factor is whether the device uses three degrees of freedom (3DOF) or six degrees of freedom (6DOF). Those with 3DOF only detect what direction the user is facing, whereas those with 6DOF have full motion tracking, which allows them to detect full body positional movement.

Augmented Reality
AR overlays digital information over the real-world. Pokémon GO* is among the best-known examples. Augmented reality keeps the real world central but supplements it with other digital details, layering new strata of perception, and adds to your reality or environment.

At its most basic, AR could be a simple data overlay like a timestamp. At its most complex, it could be a hologram. Somewhere in the middle, you have functions like menu translation, map directions, and information about nearby businesses.

Mixed Reality
MR brings together the real world and additional digital elements. In mixed reality, you interact with and manipulate both physical and virtual items and environments, using next generation sensing and imaging technologies. Mixed Reality allows you to see and immerse yourself in the world around you even as you interact with a virtual environment. It provides the ability to have one foot (or hand) in the real world, and the other in an imaginary place, breaking down basic concepts between real and imaginary, offering an experience that can change the way you game and work today.

Advice on Headsets
There are many VR headsets available, all with varying performance levels and prices. Entry-level gear, such as Google Cardboard*, uses your mobile phone as the screen, whereas PC-operated devices, like the HTC Vive* or Oculus Rift*, are sound immersive—providing a premium VR environment.

Every PC-connected HMD will have different system requirements. When you are buying a new Virtual Reality headset, make sure you check with the HMD vendor for their recommended and minimum system requirements.

Tips on Computers
If you are looking for a new computer and you’re interested in VR, you’ll need something that can handle abundant loads. When it comes to high-end desktops or laptops for Virtual Reality (and other advanced tasks like gaming or video editing), the CPU, GPU, and memory are the most critical specs.

Without these high-performing components working in sync, you could have a pretty disappointing experience. A powerful system will ensure that you will enjoy the experience as you lean in, stand up, or walk around. VR that lags makes it impossible for the virtual world to respond as you anticipated, which can lead to more than just disappointment; it can increase the risk of motion sickness.

A high-end processor assists in positional tracking and controls how real and immersive your virtual environment can be. This will help you to enjoy a deeper experience in a higher-functioning environment. For a great VR experience, consider the latest generation Intel Core™ i7 processor.

A discrete graphics processing unit (GPU) is recommended, or in the case of Oculus Rift*, HTC Vive*, and Windows Mixed Reality Ultra*, it is required. The GPU is responsible for rendering the high resolution, immersive images needed for VR. There are profiler tools that you can download from several websites, and you can use to run on your PC to determine if your PC meets the minimum requirements for their VR headsets.

Choose Your Experience
New VR and AR technologies continue to come to market, making new environments accessible to the masses. Virtual, Augmented, Mixed—the choice for a new reality is up to you. Let your imagination run wild and enjoy!