What Is the Difference between Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Reality?12 min read

What Is the Difference between Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Reality?12 min read

17/01/2019 3 By Vasyl Tsyktor

With the rise of virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality our lives have significantly changed. We can travel through virtual environments, see more with special wearable devices, and even have another reality within our physical surroundings. All these experiences refer to immersive technologies also known as VR, AR, and MR. They have some things in common but also differ with a number of characteristics. What is the difference between augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality?


Immersive technologies become more and more widespread over time. According to Statista, the global AR and VR market size will reach the value of $209.2 in 2020 compared to only $27 billion in 2018. The research agency also states that the total worldwide revenue from augmented and mixed reality software and hardware market will be $7.2 billion by the end of 2019. However, it’s still easy to find a person who has never experienced any of these technology stacks. There are a few obstacles for them to take off.

“The biggest barrier to wide adoption of immersive technologies is the lack of good user experience design”, Gartner

Gartner, a leading research and advisory company, lists three main reasons for the slow adoption of immersive technologies:

  1. The difficulty of creating a highly realistic 3D interface design
  2. Low VR hardware availability and functionality
  3. Smartphones limit the further development of augmented reality apps.

One way or another, we should understand the difference between VR, AR, and MR to be ready for their expansion.

Virtual reality

Virtual reality is an immersive technology that unites graphical and sound content to allow users to experience a fully simulated surrounding. VR immerses users in a digital environment by providing them with interactive features like the haptic feedback. The computer-generated reality can either simulate a physical environment or render a fictional one inhabited by virtual creatures and full of nonexistent three-dimensional objects.

Augmented reality

Augmented reality is another immersive technology that expands our real environment by overlaying it with virtual content like text, image, or animation through special devices like smartphones, tablets, or AR glasses. In other words, augmented reality provides an additional layer of information for real-world objects we can see with a naked eye.

Mixed reality

Mixed reality is an immersive technology that enables users to simultaneously experience both real and virtual environments as one by placing computer-generated 3D objects into the physical world. MR immerses users by adjusting virtual content to real-world objects in the way this mixed reality to be perceived like one seamless environment with a capability to interact with these 3D objects.


The fully-immersive VR app relies on a computer or video game console, special head-mounted display (HMD), and input devices. When it comes to virtual reality headsets like Samsung Gear VR, Google Cardboard, or Google Daydream, a smartphone plays a role of a computer and display in an HMD. Virtual reality headsets also include HTC Vive and Oculus Rift that isolate a human vision from a physical environment.

With input devices like smart gloves, motion trackers, and controllers, users can interact with virtual 3D objects within the computer-generated environment. Virtual reality hardware also includes headphones with the sound synchronized with video you watch while wearing an HMD. With proper haptic feedback and suitable sounds, VR systems ensure a higher level of immersion and enable users to perceive digital surroundings as real.

While VR relies only on head-mounted displays for providing graphical content, augmented reality uses a wide range of different devices that include:

  • head-up displays
  • smart glasses
  • smartphones
  • tablets
  • smart lenses
  • virtual retinal display

The most common AR is smartphone-based. To provide an image of the real-world surrounding, smartphone-based augmented reality uses a mobile device camera. Head-up displays, smart glasses, and smart lenses are transparent, so they don’t need any camera and you can see the physical environment like you do when wearing ordinary glasses.

When it comes to mixed reality, like VR, it also relies on a computer and connected MR head-mounted displays, such as Microsoft Hololens, Samsung Odyssey, Lenovo Explorer, and Acer Windows Mixed Reality. However, these headsets can be either holographic (with translucent glasses) or immersive devices that have a camera to provide a real-world image. Microsoft Hololens is a holographic HMD while Acer’s device is immersive. To interact with virtual objects within the mixed reality, users can use either a pair of motion controllers or gaze/gesture/voice recognition feature built in an MR headset.

Working principle

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Virtual reality totally separates users from the real world. Instead, the technology allows them to travel through unreal ones. Using a computer, console, or smartphone, a user launches a VR app, thus sending a command to a head-mounted display connected via an HDMI cable to start transmitting a video signal. Then the virtual reality system transmits the requested content to an HMD.

The reason why users perceive this content as a real environment instead of a simple video as on a laptop display lays in the headset design. A computer sends two different video signals per each LCD display in the head-mounted device. In addition to isolation with a tight headset, this tricks the human binocular vision so we feel like we are in the physical world though we only see a digital image in fact.

VR HMDs also have lenses located between human eyes that’s why headsets are also known as goggles. The lenses adjust the transmitted image to the distance between your eyes by reshaping each video signal to provide a 3D perception by superimposing one image with the other.

The difference between virtual reality and augmented reality is that the latter doesn’t isolate users from the real world. Instead, it keeps a full connection to the physical environment. It just adds another content users don’t perceive as a part of the real surrounding, unlike mixed reality.

To properly place virtual objects in AR, the system captures the environment using a camera, processes this image with special algorithms like simultaneous localization and mapping, and determines where to put the necessary content. As a result, an augmented reality app displays a picture formed from a real-world mirror image and overlaid digital content. Users experience AR on a screen of their mobile device or other augmented reality hardware like smart glasses or a head-up display.

The main difference between augmented reality and mixed reality is that the latter superimposes the physical environment with virtual 3D objects perceived as a part of the real world. MR involves interacting with digital content in a form of holograms looking like Jarvis in the Iron Man movie but experienced through a head-mounted display.

However, the delivery method of mixed reality is similar to AR. MR systems scan a physical environment and generate a three-dimensional map of the real world. This principle is comparable to how LIDAR works. Using accelerometer, magnetometer, gyroscope, and proximity sensors built in MR headsets, mixed reality systems place computer-generated objects within the physical environment in accordance with the user’s position and head orientation.


Semi-immersive virtual reality

The difference between AR, VR, and MR lays in the level of immersion. It’s worth mentioning that virtual reality can be non-immersive, semi-immersive, fully-immersive, and true immersive. However, we will consider the latter two types since non- and semi-immersive VR refers to typical video games and simulators played through video game consoles or cockpits. Fully- and true-immersive (with special treadmills) virtual reality is a common type of VR based on HMDs.

Virtual reality provides the highest level of immersion among the immersive technologies. Within VR, users feel like they are in the real environment since head-mounted displays don’t allow external noise and visual contact with physical surroundings. Moreover, users experience the immersion because they can interact with computer-generated objects in a similar way they do with real ones.

Such two characteristics as depth and width make the fully-immersive virtual reality possible. The depth means that users can explore any part of the digital environment and all objects in it from any perspective. Moreover, the system adjusts an image to the angle of the user’s position and point of view. Thereby, a virtual world looks real. The breadth refers to human senses involved within a computer-simulated environment where you can hear a digital sound, see virtual 3D objects, and interact with them via controllers using your hands.

Compared to VR, mixed reality provides a lower level of immersion, since MR only adds new computer-generated objects to the existing environment. Unlike VR, this technology keeps users connected to the real world and enables them to see physical surroundings, interact with real objects, and hear natural sounds.

However, virtual objects behave like real ones in the same way as in virtual reality. So wherever you go or look while wearing an MR HMD, 3D content seems further or closer and looks different from each side. In addition, you can simultaneously interact with both 3D content and the physical world in real-time. While with the virtual reality technology, you can’t properly interact with the real-world since you can’t see it when wearing a VR headset.

Among the immersive technologies, augmented reality provides the lowest level of immersion. Its destination is to add one data layer more. AR often refers to immersive experiences showed on smartphone or tablet displays. Although, even with projection-based experiences, which refer to realistic projections on physical surfaces, you can’t get the same level of immersion as with mixed reality. The reason lays in that you can’t interact with AR projections.

Augmented reality systems ensure immersion by accurate mapping or marker recognition as well as proper virtual content placing. In AR, 3D objects fit the real-world and look different from different perspectives. They even can properly change its location depending on where you put your smartphone built-in camera. Animated dinosaurs from the Jurassic World AR app seem alive, but only on a display of your mobile device. You can’t interact with them but only explore them from different angles.


It’s hardly possible to highlight particular industries where some of the immersive technologies can’t be applied. Their application is only limited by existing use cases but not by their capabilities. However, the potential of VR, AR. and MR is high and they’re only gaining momentum. So more success stories to appear in the next few years.

When it comes to use cases, the main difference between mixed reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality is what these technologies are associated with. For example, AR is often associated with gaming because of the well-known Pokemon Go mobile game. Although, you can find AR systems in the automotive, aviation, transportation, and healthcare industries. If your car has a parking assist system with a trajectory planner, then this is augmented reality. DHL, one of the leading logistics companies, use AR to efficiently manage packages in warehouses by automatic scanning barcodes using smart glasses.

Like augmented reality, VR is also often associated with entertainments, for example, a virtual roller-coaster experienceable via a head-mounted display. However, virtual reality has great potential for employee training. The British army uses it to train recruits and teach them how to drive a tank. Aviation companies use hard VR simulators for testing piloting skills. Medical students can safely practice surgeries with virtual patients, thus, eliminating risk of negative consequences of the lack of experience.

Mixed reality is a promising technology for manufacturing. Ford uses MR to build their cars and estimate the real-world size model design without the need for creating a clay mockup. However, it’s only some of the numerous use cases and potential applications of this technology. An MR app developed by Black Marble for Microsoft Hololens helps police officers examine crime scenes and collect necessary data for further investigation. That’s why all immersive technologies are equally useful and can be applied in different industries.


When it comes to immersive technologies, software is an application that processes all the commands sent by users through input devices and displays the requested graphical content. In other words, software is a programming code that sets the necessary results for particular causes. To write the code for VR apps from scratch, developers can choose from the following programming languages:

  • JavaScript
  • Java
  • C++
  • C#

In addition, VR companies can use special computer programs that can help them greatly simplify and accelerate the development process. These programs are called software development kits, also known as SDKs. An SDK is a digital tool that provides developers with a user interface and graphics rendering libraries that eliminate the need for creating typical and repetitive elements from scratch. Popular software development kits for virtual reality include Unreal Engine, which helps developers build VR apps in C++, Unity 3D for apps in C#, and CryEngine (C++ and C#).

Like virtual reality, AR relies on C#, C/C++ or any other programming languages typically used for backend software development. Augmented reality developers also can use software development kits to create apps faster and easier. However, official SDKs for AR apps are Google’s ARCore for Android and Apple’s ARKit for iOS. Third-party software development kits include Vuforia, Wikitude, and Kudan.

When it comes to mixed reality, developers use the same programming languages as for AR. To build MR experiences in a fast and easy way, programmers use Visual Studio with the Windows 10 SDK.


The VR vs AR vs MR comparison
Characteristics Virtual reality Augmented reality Mixed reality
Hardware computers or video game consoles, input devices (controllers, keyboards, treadmills, smart gloves, etc.), and output devices (head-mounted displays, VR bodysuits, high-end displays) smartphones and tablets, head-up displays, in-car infotainment systems, smart glasses, smart lenses, and virtual retinal displays computers, head-mounted displays, motion controllers
Programming languages Javascript, Java, C++, C#, etc. C#, C/C++, etc. C#, C/C++, etc.
Software development kits (SDKs) Unity 3D, CryEngine ARKit, ARCore, Vuforia, Wikitude, Kudan, etc. Visual Studio with the Windows 10 SDK
Delivery method Sending a video signal to a VR headset Overlaying an image of the physical environment with the virtual content Adding virtual 3D objects to the real-world environment via an MR head-mounted display
Level of immersion High Low Medium
Industries gaming, automotive, aviation, healthcare, military, etc. gaming, automotive, aviation, transportation, healthcare, Ecommerce, etc. automotive, healthcare, police, etc.

The difference between virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality is in the interactivity and a level of immersion they provide.

In short, virtual reality is about being fully immersed in the totally computer-generated environment while being isolated from the real world by VR head-mounted displays. You can interact with virtual 3D objects using input devices like motion controllers.

Mixed reality refers to experiences where physical and virtual objects coexist, and you can simultaneously interact with both of them in real-time.

Augmented reality mostly exists on a display of your mobile device. Virtual content in AR fits real-world surroundings and seems realistic though you can’t move, take, or throw any of the digital objects.