Exploring the Virtuality Continuum

The one thing about the world of AR and VR in education that I think still confuses the everyday teacher is the terminology. There are so many terms flying around that at times seem synonymous and at others seem very different. Augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality – what do they actually mean?

In 2015, I found myself waiting to get my hands on a Vive when Microsoft announced the HoloLens, dubbing it “mixed reality.” I was confused by the terminology being used and began researching VR/AR theory. One thing I kept coming across was the Virtuality Continuum concept developed by Paul Milgram in 1994 as a part of his paper "Augmented Reality: A class of displays on the reality-virtuality continuum.” It resonated with me and I have referred others to it since. (NB read the original paper here.) What is particularly interesting is that Milgram himself coined the term mixed reality at the same time…

I have recently produced my own interpretation of the Virtuality Continuum diagram which you can find below. Feel free to use/share this however you like. I’d also like to take a quick run through the terminology in play here and add a few additional thoughts of my own.

Reality – pretty straightforward (...right?)

Augmented Reality – digital content being overlaid onto the real world which you then see using a device (tablet, headset etc.) This really began to permeate the public consciousness last year with the phenomenon of Pokemon Go and apps like Snapchat, Facebook Messenger and MSQRD introducing live camera filters. Ultimately you are viewing the real world with a digital layer of content placed on top of it, be it maps, small Japanese monsters or cat ears.

Augmented Virtuality – chances are you’ve never heard of this. This is probably due to the simple fact that it’s the most complicated term to even say! It's not the most user-friendly vocabulary that’s for sure but the concept is fairly straightforward in that it’s the reverse of AR. As such in this instance, the real world is augmenting the virtual world somehow. The best example of this I can suggest is Leap Motion:

Virtual Reality – so this is where the whole experience is synthetic –it’s not real. The user is immersed in a space that is digitally generated which may or may not be a copy of a real space (like a pyramid) or something more fantastical (like a futuristic space station.) Whilst in VR, the user is not able to see the real world at all.

Mixed Reality – ok so this a bit more sticky. Milgram coined the term and uses it as a blanket to encompass “anywhere between the extrema of the virtuality continuum.” It was a term to unite AR and AV, so how did it end up being used as both a synonym for augmented reality and a term to represent a higher level of virtual experience? In my opinion – the problem was simply the word “augmented.”

"Augmented" is not the easiest word to explain to every day consumers; it’s just not a word people use. The general public get the idea of virtual reality but augmented reality (let alone augmented virtuality) has always been a harder sell. Mixed reality is a much more palatable term and Microsoft (and others) have set the marketing machine loose with it, perhaps not really understanding the term fully – it is now being used to describe the Windows VR headsets being produced by HP, Acer etc.

If anything the reintroduction and repurposing of the term Mixed Reality has actually been counterproductive as it has muddied the waters further and left even the more tech-savvy confused. It’s interesting to note that just over two years after the HoloLens was originally announced (and post one long Pokemon fuelled summer in 2016) Apple have launched their ARKit platform for developers to use alongside their next iOS - they have not shied away from the words augmented reality.

The deluge of terms doesn’t end here though. Here are a couple more that you may have heard and how they fit into the scheme of things:

Extended Reality (XR) - another blanket term that essentially encompasses AR, AV and VR.

Hyper Reality – VR embellished with additional sensory stimuli (e.g. wind, smells) similar to 4DX cinema experiences.

#VR #theory