The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Alternate Realities

Virtual, Mixed, and Augmented Reality: What’s the Difference?

If you follow Punch Drunk on social, you may have seen some new and exciting projects coming out of the lab. From producing Mixed Reality VR at events to our new Mixed Reality studio to creating custom software for Unity developers, we like to keep the ball rolling in weird and interesting directions.

Now seems like a great time to review some of the different alternate reality options available in 2016. You’re probably familiar with the term “Virtual Reality” (or VR). One noteworthy player in VR is the HTC Vive, which has been blowing minds and winning accolades, including Best in Show at CES 2016. If you have dipped your toes in the VR water, maybe you’ve heard of Mixed Reality (MR) or Augmented Reality (AR). So what do all these different terms mean?

1. VIRTUAL REALITY (VR)

In order for an experience to be anything other than plain old vanilla “reality,” it tends to involve a fabricated environment. This often means sensory stimuli generated by a computer that gives the user some control over how they interact with the artificial environment. Typically, a person in VR will wear a head-mounted-display (HMD) to view the virtual world.

This isn’t a new idea, one of the first references to what we now call virtual reality can be found in a 1953 short story by Stanley G. Weinbaum, “Pygmalion’s Spectacles”.

By Minecraftpsyco (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Sensorama Morton Heilig VR Headset

By 1966, MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory came up with with what could be considered to be the first virtual reality headset. It weighed so much that the device needed to be attached to a mechanical arm suspended from the ceiling. It was apparently rather buggy and many of the components were not fully integrated, but the dream was brought into reality. Or at least…virtual reality.

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You can hangout in Rick’s Garage with Vive

Fast forward 50 years, and with the right amount of money, (or connections) you can plug yourself into an infinite number of universes. We have tools to create and experience almost any flavor of reality you can dream of. There are a ton of options: from Oculus to Gear VR to Google Cardboard. You can strap yourself into a Haptic Exoskeleton suit and literally feel the virtual world around you. But nothing quite takes the cake quite like the HTC Vive. Although if you have a better system in mind (or a prototype you are working on) we would love to check it out.

We use the Vive for a variety of different projects. Being able to see a video game you are developing or a 360 movie you are editing in an immersible environment is crucial to getting a feel for what the end user will ultimately experience. Aside from attempting to break the office high score in Space Pirate Trainer, we spend quite a bit of time exploring the versatility of VR. There is a drive to implement VR tools into almost every professional discipline, of course including live video production.

2. MIXED REALITY (MR)

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We got to play Serious Sam at Steam’s Dev Days 2016

One of our primary focus areas is Mixed Reality: merging of real and virtual worlds to produce new experiences where physical and digital objects co-exist and can interact in real time. Or inserting the VR player into the virtual landscape so that a third party can see them seamlessly blended together in real-time. Mixed Reality is sometimes also referred to as Hybrid Reality. The phrase “Let’s Play VR” has gained traction in the video game community to describe videos that include both real and virtual environments. While a person is immersed in a virtual environment, we have the ability to composite them into a 3rd person view of the game in real-time using chroma keying (green screen) and a little bit of Unity magic. This craze has caught on amongst the Twitch streaming community, and as the popularity of VR games and hardware grows, so will the demand for Mixed Reality content. You now have the ability to take a picture of yourself standing with your favorite video game character in the virtual world. Instead of taking a video of your screen while you play a video game, you could have a video of yourself jumping around inside the game environment itself.

Mixed reality seemed to begin in the 1970s with some of the first attempts at a real world Adblocker. Since then we have seen applications in almost every field imaginable. From bridging the gap between audience and player in VR games to sharing educational resources with remote classrooms to being diagnosed by a physician, Mixed Reality and VR are here in a big way.

3. Augmented Reality (AR)

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Jacob is working hard to make new VR Experiences at Ti6

Perhaps the most complex branch of contemporary VR is Augmented Reality: taking real world objects or environments and supplementing their perception by the end-user with computer-generated sensory input. A great example of basic Augmented Reality is guided audio tours of museums. When you listen to narration on a portable media player to supplement whatever object you are currently looking at, you are, in the simplest way, having an Augmented Reality experience. Although there is quite a bit of overlap in the literal definitions of Mixed and Augmented Reality, the modern colloquialisms tend to refer to two different things. The Mixed Reality experience is generally focused on the experience of the spectator: like in the movie Space Jam. The Augmented Reality experience is designed for the benefit of the person immersed into the environment.

Products like Google Glass or Microsoft’s Holo Lens are great examples of emerging consumer-focused Augmented Reality. Both products give the user additional access to information based on input from the user’s physical world. The applications of this technology are limitless. Augmented Reality has already been deployed in emergency management and military operations.

We are always working to expand experiences: whether our own or those of our clients and their customers. Weaving Mixed Reality and VR together with live video production and streaming has been a fascinating journey so far, but it’s only just begun…

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