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  • Writer's pictureJoel Scharlat

The Future: Augmented Reality (AR) or Virtual Reality (VR) Part 1

I was watching an interesting video today. It was a replay of a session at this year’s Augmented World Expo (AWE) that has since been posted to YouTube. It was a panel-type session pitting Tony Parisi, a VR pioneer, against Ralph Osterhout, an AR pioneer. It was a good, 45-minute exchange discussing the differences between the two technologies and which one was “the future”. The problem is – neither one is the winner in defining the future. These two classes of technologies aren’t competing against each other – they are complementary. I’ll go on to explain. But first…

A bit of history

I’ve been following these technologies for almost 10 years now. I did extensive research at the Naval Postgraduate School on the use of virtual environments in military settings. Part of my research led me to John Smart’s Metaverse Roadmap. At the time, because I was focusing on my research, I didn’t realize how visionary this document really was. Now, here we are almost 10 years later,  I look back through the document and realize just how visionary it is. More about the overall document later. Specifically, I used the document in defining Metaverse technologies. The official definition is somewhat academic in stating that: “The Metaverse is the convergence of 1) virtually enhanced physical reality and 2) physically persistent virtual space. It is a fusion of both, while allowing users to experience it as either.”¹ But what does that mean? To me, it’s clear. However, I understand it probably amounts to a bunch of techno-babble for some of you, so let’s break it down.

Virtually enhanced physical reality

First, I have to say, I appreciate the use of the term “physical reality” over any other term, especially “the real world”. That topic is a completely different rabbit-hole we can discuss later (teaser – reality is a perception). However, it is an important choice of words. The physical reality is essentially the tangible world as we know it. It’s what we’ve grown up with forever; it’s anything in the world that isn’t created by a computer drawing a pixel. Then you add virtual information. That virtual information is created (or provided) by a computer. Simple, right?

Physically persistent virtual space

This is the same virtual as described above. So we are talking about something virtual that endures on a computer whether or not a user is accessing it. The persistence part comes when data, information, avatars, twitter feeds, Facebook posts, or Internet of Things (IoT) sensor data, etc., continue to exist even when we are paying attention to it. The antithesis of this is a video game. When you are done playing a video game and turn it off, your score and progress within the game may be saved, but the game no longer “exists”. It is not persistent in the truest of definitions because Mario isn’t sitting there in his world waiting for you to move the controller. He doesn’t exist unless you are actively playing the game. Persistence, on the other hands, means that time passes in a virtual environment even if you aren’t paying attention to it. A 3D virtual world like Second Life is an example. Even if I log out of Second Life, that “world” continues to exist, I’m just not participating in it.

The metaverse quadrant diagram

The next step in providing clarification on metaverse technologies (and more importantly, in explaining how it applies to this discussion), is to discuss a framework developed to better explain what metaverse technologies are. John Smart and the Metaverse Roadmap again provide support here. Consider the figure below:

This figure depicts a quadrant defined by two axes. Most people probably recognize the technology categories listed in each quadrant, but it’s helpful to understand what defines the quadrants. The two axes are continuum; the horizontal axis represents the focus of the technology. Intimate focuses on the user while External focuses on the user’s environment. The vertical axis is a range from Augmentation (virtual data added to physical environments) to Simulation (physical world depicted as virtual). So the bottom right quadrant contains technologies that focus on the user in a simulated environment. I find this one picture to be the most singularly important and simple tool for categorizing technologies as well as understanding their intended use. I believe it also clearly shows why AR and VR technologies aren’t in a “winner take all” competition.

And here’s the video…


¹ Smart, E.J., Cascio, J. and Paffendorf, J., Metaverse Roadmap Overview, 2007

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