An over-the-shoulder shot of a man looking at a room through an electronic tablet. The room in the background is empty, but the room on the tablet screen is covered in a grid, with a couch, rug, coffee table, chair, lamp and wall art projected via augmented reality.
Augmented reality (AR) programs have uses in furniture and decor sales. Businesses in these industries can use AR to show customers how a certain purchase will look in their home. — Getty Images/gorodenkoff

While the terms “augmented reality” (AR) and “virtual reality” (VR) are sometimes used interchangeably, there are important distinctions to make between these two very different technological advancements. As smartphones, headsets and other technologies advance in AR and VR, here’s what you need to know to spot the differences.

What is augmented reality?

Augmented reality (AR) allows us to see the world in front of us, either through a smartphone, headsets or smart glasses, with an overlay of digital augmentation. For example, cartoon characters or fantasy creatures can be seen socializing and blending in with the real world. The Pokemon Go app is a popular example of AR where users can use their smartphones to collect and battle Pokemon in their real-world environment. Furniture retailers like Ikea and Amazon also have augmented reality functions that place pieces of furniture and decor in your home so you can see what it looks like in real time.

[Read more: How Augmented Reality is Driving the Evolution of Brands]

What is virtual reality?

Virtual reality (VR) is the ability to view an entirely virtual world through a VR headset or head-mounted display. These simulations involve as many senses as possible in the experience to completely immerse the user in a virtual world. Users are able to interact with 3D worlds through commands or controls on VR systems.

With AR, the user has the ability to dictate the real world. On the other hand, VR users are restrained by the system’s creations.

What’s the difference between AR and VR?

AR and VR are forms of extended reality (XR) and differ from one another from their uses to how they work. Here are the differences between AR and VR.


Businesses can utilize AR by allowing customers to “try before they buy.” They can see a version of a business’s products and services including hair colors, clothing and jewelry through a lens of augmented reality. AR gives customers the chance to see if a product is right for them, cutting down on the number of returns and costly shipping methods for businesses. AR can also be used to teach 3D anatomy to medical students or in tourism for users to enjoy a self-guided tour.

VR has its own uses that can further a business’s success. As the pandemic moves the world more toward virtual connections, VR can be used to create virtual meetings or rooms for customers to mingle, get to know the layout of a brick-and-mortar store or allow them to virtually test out a new product. VR can also support mental health through exposure therapy as well as create learning opportunities in the education field.

[Read more: Augmented and Virtual Reality: Uses for Small Businesses]

Software needed

VR requires a headset that’s connected to the simulated digital platform while AR only requires a smartphone to see the XR. VR headsets use six-degrees-of-freedom (6DOF) motion tracking, meaning that not only are users able to see in all directions, they can sense themselves moving as well. AR can utilize either 6DOF or three-degrees-of-freedom (3DOF) motion tracking. Some more advanced systems may need 6DOF to pinpoint your location so the 3D images are consistent in both the XR and true reality.


With AR, the user has the ability to dictate the real world. On the other hand, VR users are restrained by the system’s creations and settings created by developers. When a user puts on a VR headset, their brains aren’t able to distinguish between the virtual reality they’re currently in and the real world. This allows the user to be completely immersed in the VR experience. AR is more limited in this respect because the XR must be seen and interacted with on a screen such as a smartphone.

A happy medium: mixed reality

Mixed reality is a combination of both the sensory experience from VR and the connection between XR and the real world from AR. In a mixed reality, users are able to interact with both real-world experiences and perceived conditions created through an extended reality. A mixed reality is seen through headsets including holographic devices and immersive devices. Mixed reality devices give users a heightened gaming or movie experience. They have real-world applications as well, such as allowing surgeons to remotely remove tumors in the human body. Mixed reality can also be used in the automotive, education and engineering fields.

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