Augmented Reality vs. Virtual Reality: What’s the Difference?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn the difference between AR and VR and the implementation of each technology.

[Featured Image] A woman stands in an office wearing a virtual reality headset.

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are both technological experiences that change how digital technology interacts with the physical world. AR and VR are often lumped together, but each has its way of interacting with the virtual environment.  

While learning about augmented and virtual reality, examining each technology to understand how they differ and intersect is critical. AR focuses on augmenting the physical world with digital artifacts, images, videos, or experiences overlayed with computer-generated images (CGI) and 3D models. VR aims to create a virtual experience with headsets and tracking to place the user in a different world. With the increasing usage of AR and VR in gaming, marketing, education, and health care, it's important to understand each technology’s uses, applications, advantages, and disadvantages. 

Read more: What Is Extended Reality?

Augmented Reality

AR overlays video or images onto a display of the physical world, typically through a smartphone. The overlaid image creates an interaction between the user, the digital, and the physical worlds, allowing them to make connections or have new experiences. AR and CGI allow for the visualization of objects in the real world. 

To create an AR experience, you need a device with a camera and software that uses the 3D elements with the AR application. Some popular examples of AR include entertainment-related options like Snapchat filters and the mobile video game Pokemon Go, but it also has implications for business training. 

Read more: Augmented Reality: Types of AR

What is augmented reality used for?

AR’s primary functions include visualization, instruction, and interaction because of the ways virtual information adds to the physical world. Let’s take a look at AR’s three main functions:

  • Visualization: AR allows users to see deeper into difficult aspects of the human body and mechanical systems by superimposing live images of human veins for blood drawing procedures or how parts come together in mechanical environments. 

  • Instruction: AR-enhanced instruction and training change how you learn and work by providing real-time information and diagrams while working to save time referencing video or 2D diagrams. 

  • Interaction: AR changes the way interaction between humans and machines occurs by bypassing the need for physical controls in the future through the use of virtual control panels. 

Read more: 5 Augmented Reality Careers

Advantages of augmented reality

The advantage of augmented reality is its ability to combine the physical world with a digital interface, creating a new experience of the world. Doing so also creates new ways of experiencing the world, from how you monitor manufacturing machines to how surgeons learn about the human body. AR also provides new ways for you to interact within the digital environment.  

Disadvantages of augmented reality

The disadvantages of AR include the cost of implementing the technology in education. Future consideration must ensure equitable access across a diverse range of schools. AR also requires a reliable internet connection and access to smartphones or other connected devices to use. On the programming end, it requires skills and technology to produce, which can put it out of the budgets of small businesses.  

Virtual Reality

Unlike AR, virtual reality creates a fully immersive experience using a headset and computer-generated images (CGI) to put the user in a virtual world. In VR, the user interacts with a fully virtual world using a headset and a controller. Virtual reality creates a sensory experience by stimulating and tricking the sensory organs into interacting with the virtual world as they would the physical world. 

What is virtual reality used for?

Virtual reality has many uses similar to AR, but creating an entirely virtual experience lends itself to different types of applications. Industries that use VR include entertainment, health care, training, and education. Let’s examine the uses of VR in each industry. 

  • Entertainment: VR in entertainment creates ways to access movies, places, and video games in full 360 degrees. It gives users the ability to look where they want and what they want in virtual environments, creating a new experience. 

  • Health care: VR in health care gives surgeons and those training in the medical field the ability to watch surgery simulations, learn about tools, and experience patient dynamics in a virtual setting before undergoing surgery. 

  • Training: VR simulations can help with training for new drivers as the virtual environment is safer and more accessible than learning to drive in the physical world. 

  • Education: VR in education brings students into other environments to get a clear picture of what they are learning about, making it more exciting. Additionally, it could make remote learning easier as students could participate in a virtual classroom. 

Advantages of virtual reality

VR has advantages similar to AR, including its advantages in education by allowing learners to explore the physical world in ways not possible without virtual reality. VR gives users a safe space to experience or train for things that might be dangerous or fearful in the physical world without putting them in harm's way. VR also allows users to travel anywhere in the physical world through a virtual experience.

Disadvantages of virtual reality

One disadvantage of VR is motion sickness, which some users experience. It creates nausea, dizziness, and headaches for some users. VR motion sickness occurs in users with a predisposition to motion sickness or prolonged experience in a simulation. Challenges in VR hardware and cost make it harder to implement than AR. In addition to the upfront cost of the headset, VR requires you to already have a computer with a high-end graphics card to run VR software.

Other things to consider

In review, let’s examine the differences between AR and VR and when each technology is most applicable. 

Augmented realityVirtual reality
AR uses smartphones to overlay virtual 3D images over the physical world, making it more accessible than VR.VR requires headsets and computer hardware to create a fully virtual experience, making it less accessible than AR.
AR creates only a partial digital world.VR creates a fully virtual world, creating total immersion of the human senses.
AR only overlays 3D images, making an interaction between the digital and physical worlds.VR limits your interaction only to the programming in the virtual world using your headset and controllers.

The areas where AR and VR differ create various ways for people and businesses to use each other. The implementation of each technology depends on the intention of the business or user since each one is used in gaming, entertainment, education, health care, and marketing. 

Mixed reality

Mixed reality (MR) is somewhere in between AR and VR. MR creates an experience that implements AR and VR concepts, where you interact with virtual and physical objects in one MR world. It allows you to be in both the virtual and digital worlds while keeping your VR headset on. If AR is on one side and VR is on the other side of the spectrum, MR is in the middle, creating a full blending between the physical and digital worlds. 

Getting started with Coursera

If you want to learn about AR and VR further or develop the skills necessary for a career in extended reality (XR) technologies, taking online courses can provide an excellent start. Try the Extended Reality for Everybody Specialization from the University of Michigan found on Coursera. In this Specialization, you learn concepts, explore current XR issues, and create your own applications. Or consider getting a Meta AR Developer Professional Certificate to gain AR developing skills within the Metaverse. Upon completing either program, gain a shareable Professional Certificate to include in your resume, CV, or LinkedIn profile.

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