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Gamers test a new Virtual Reality game headset at the Oculus display on the second day of the Electronic Entertainment Expo, known as E3 at the Convention Center in Los Angeles, California on June 17, 2015.  Mark Ralston—AFP/Getty Images

Everything to Know About Virtual Reality

Unless you’ve had your head stuck in the sand, you've likely heard that virtual reality technology is heading towards mainstream adoption. The newest wave in computer technology, consumer virtual reality devices are expected to wash ashore in 2016. So now is a great time to get familiar with the lay of the impending virtual land.

In wrapping your brain around virtual reality, it's important to understand that not all wearable screen technologies are created equally — nor are they all designed to do the same thing. As a result, the wearable screen landscape is evolving into three distinct domains: augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), and virtual reality (VR). Virtual reality serves as a sort of umbrella term for the space, simply because it was coined first (in 1987, by computer scientist Jaron Lanier).

But once all the impending products start rolling out, VR may prove to be the least popular of the three distinct technologies. Here’s why.

Augmented Reality Is Already Here

“[Augmented Reality] is a digital overlay on top of your real environment,” says Andy Fouché, the head of public relations and government affairs for Magic Leap, one of many wearable display companies set to make a big splash. Essentially, AR inserts a digital element into the users’ worlds, but only blocks off part of that world.

For many people, that description of AR brings Google Glass to mind. A pair of experimental glasses with a tiny, embedded display, Google Glass augmented reality by displaying everything from calendar and email notifications to turn-by-turn directions and travel alerts, right over the wearer’s field of vision.

But even if you weren't among the few who got a Google Glass headset, you’ve still likely been walking around with AR technology in your pocket for the past eight years. Apps with overlay information like Star Walk, an iOS app that can identify constellations by pointing the iPhone’s camera toward the stars, and iOnRoad, a heads-up-display driving app, have turned smartphones into augmented reality devices, simply by using the handhelds' sensors.

These added layers of helpful information is what AR is really all about. Experts believe that AR will emerge to be a great tool in the workplace. Run by lightweight applications, AR could help guide factory workers in manufacturing products, present scenarios for people undergoing training, or serve as GPS-enabled displays for delivery drivers and other workers.

See The Incredibly Goofy Evolution of Virtual Reality Headsets

Andrew Mishkin wearing a 3-D virtual display helmet that is connected to a six-wheeled roving vehicle. The rover was meant to explore the surface of Mars and send back information.
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1988 Andrew Mishkin wearing a 3-D virtual display helmet that is connected to a six-wheeled roving vehicle. The rover was meant to explore the surface of Mars and send back information.Roger Ressmeyer—Corbis
Andrew Mishkin wearing a 3-D virtual display helmet that is connected to a six-wheeled roving vehicle. The rover was meant to explore the surface of Mars and send back information.
"Reality +" at the Virtual Reality Systems 93 show was described as a next generation, multi-player virtual reality entertainment system that gave a high sense of movement in a computer-generated world revealed in a head-mounted display.
The 3-player Budweiser virtual reality mask at the Food Marketing Institute's International Supermarket Industry Convention and Educational Expostion in Chicago.
A Virtual Reality contraption at the Sci Fi Channel booth at The National Cable Television Association annual convention, in San Francisco.
Soldier training using a virtual reality-simulated 3-D shootout at an Army facility.
A visitor checking out a virtual reality head-set at the G7 Information Society Showcase taking place at the European Parliament. The head-set was linked to a camera elsewhere in the building which the visitor could control through head movements.
A researcher at Tokyo University's Intelligent Modeling Laboratory wearing 3-D glasses, extending his hands to touch carbon atoms in the microscopic world at the laboratory's virtual reality room.
Visitors enjoy virtual reality driving with 3-D goggles and driving simulators for the presentation of Japan's automaker Nissan at the Tokyo Motor Show in Tokyo.
A visitor to the " Ars Electronica in a dish installation " Humphrey II" , which allowed virtual free flight through a 3D reconstruction of the city of Linz.
A girl wore a full color head mounted display with a built-in camera as Japan's machinery maker Hitachi Zosen and Shimadzu unveiled a wearable computer, consisting of the HMD and a palm sized Windows XP PC with a pointing device at a virtual reality exhibition in Tokyo.
Lt. David Shipley of the Adams County Sheriff's Department watched an interactive video that replicated the experiences of a schizophrenic patient having auditory and visual hallucinations while attempting to refill a prescription at a pharmacy.
Valeria Petkova, right, and student Andrew Ketterer, left, of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, tested the 'body-swap' illusion, a method whereby people can experience the illusion that either a mannequin or another person's body is their own body.
Raphael Pirker from Switzerland, founder of Team BlackSheep used virtual reality goggles to simulate the sensation of flight in the real world during a demonstration, flying from the perspective of a model aircraft, during a session of LeWeb'12 in Saint-Denis, near Paris.
A man seeking a job was equipped with 3D spectacles with sensors as he trained in Clermont-Ferrand, central France with avatars (background) in a virtual reality cube, at business incubator Pascalis.
Peter Kenny Jan Torpus, director of Lifeclipper project, tested the immersive augmented reality equipment in St Johanns Park in Basel, Switzerland.
Professor Karl Oldhafer, chief physician of general and visceral surgery at the Asklepios Hospital Hamburg-Barmbek, before liver surgery. Oldhafer used augmented reality, which allowed the liver to be filmed with an iPad and overlaid during the operation with virtual 3D models reconstructed from the real organ. This procedure helped locate critical structures such as tumors and vessels and was expected to improve the quality of transferring pre-operational resection plans into actual surgery.
British television presenter Rachel Riley showed a virtual-reality headset called Gear VR during a Samsung event ahead of the consumer electronic fair IFA in Berlin.
Tim Draper, Founder and Managing partner of 'Draper Fisher Jurvetson', tried out the latest in virtual reality technology the 2014 Kairos Global Summit at Ritz-Carlton Laguna Nigel in Dana Point, California.
A man played a game with the virtual reality head-mounted display 'Oculus Rift' at International Games Week in Berlin. The display transfers the eye movements to the game in real time.
Microsoft's Lorraine Bardeen demonstrates HoloLens headset during an event at the company's headquarters in Redmond, Wash. on Jan. 21, 2015.
1988 Andrew Mishkin wearing a 3-D virtual display helmet that is connected to a six-wheeled roving vehicle. The rover w
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Roger Ressmeyer—Corbis
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Mixed Reality: The Emerging Space

While pocket-sized applications of AR are easy to carry around, they're not the most convenient to use — you almost always have to be holding your handset to see the effect. In addition, AR systems typically don’t have a lot of computing power driving them. On the other hand, VR can be the opposite: Wearing the device on your face blocks out the world around you, and they can require some high-powered (and heavy) gear to make the experience fully immersive.

Mixed Reality is the emerging technology that’s aiming to fill the gap in between. "Mixed Reality is digital content integrated into your real world, capable of interacting with you and your environment,” says Fouché. This unique experience enables a person to choose the degree of digital reality the wearer desires, he says. For instance, at one moment she can experience her entire world digitally, like how VR operates, while the next she can experience a seamless mix of the digital and real worlds, similar to AR. The difference is that MR is enabled by powerful computers loaded with sensors designed specifically to generate convincing visuals that can interact with the real world around you.

Magic Leap is playing its cards close to the vest, showing only concepts of its product’s uses without revealing details about the hardware itself. Microsoft HoloLens, on the other hand, is taking a markedly different approach, showing the world what’s up its sleeve before the company releases its mixed reality product in early 2016. Microsoft is billing the HoloLens as more of a productivity tool than anything else. For instance, the company has revealed how it has teamed up with NASA to give scientists the means to virtually walk on the surface of Mars using imagery from the Curiosity rover. On Earth — specifically at Case Western Reserve University — the school has collaborated with both the Cleveland Clinic and Microsoft to show students thousands of hearts constructed from MRI imagery, a revolutionary way to learn human anatomy, and all its intricacies. And of course you can play Minecraft on the thing, because why not?

These are just a few uses for MR, a field that’s set to boom in the very near future.

Virtual Reality: Now Showing

Virtual Reality is nothing new, but through the miniaturization of technology and the improvement in display resolution, it’s become more prevalent in recent years. Experts have argued that the immersive technology stretches back at least as far as the initial release of the View-Master, the beloved childhood toy, which is more than 75 years old. But now through headsets like the Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard, people have been able to use their smartphones as VR screens. Heck, even toy maker Mattel is getting in on the action, relaunching View-Master as a smartphone-powered VR headset.

However, the definition of VR is a sticky one. While many digital products bill themselves as VR, technically, they aren’t. "VR is a totally occluded experience,” says Fouché. In other words, he says, it's "completely closed off from your natural world.” So, it should be a different reality that you can see, hear, and interact with. But most VR experiences being shown through these smartphone setups aren’t at all interactive.

Instead, they are actually just immersive video. For instance, the New York Times recently released an immersive documentary called The Displaced, which let viewers explore the environments of three children living in war-torn worlds. True VR would have let the user interact with the environment or the films’ subjects. Likewise, last month’s Democratic debate was broadcast in VR. The real world event took place in Las Vegas, but Samsung VR owners could watch the immersive feed — though not interact with the participants (thank goodness) — from their living rooms. “The graphics were so poor they looked more like faceless avatars than human beings,” wrote TIME’s Alex Fitzpatrick. In fairness to the programmers behind this effort, come election season, most politicians look like faceless avatars.

But just because some VR isn’t as high-powered doesn’t mean it will lose the big technology race. Facebook has also invested heavily in VR. The social network’s aim has always been to connect the world, and with its immersive videos, it's doing just that. In 2014, the company bought Oculus, a startup creating a wearable VR headset, for $2 billion. And the Oculus Rift headset is due to launch in early 2016. Early buzz for the product is the same as its competition: It’s a head-turner.

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