Innovation

Virtual reality vs. augmented reality: Debating the merits

Augmented World Expo 2015 presented a debate on the merits of AR versus VR. Nothing was settled - not that anyone expected that.

Image: Erin Carson/TechRepublic

After a harmonious three days of augmented reality, virtual reality, wearables, and IoT, the Augmented World Expo wrapped up with a panel debate pitting AR and VR against each other.

The panel featured Tipatat Chennavasin, creative director at Rothenberg Ventures; Amir Rubin, CEO of Sixense; Steve Mann, AR researcher and pioneer; Robert Scoble, startup liaison at Rackspace; and Mark Billinghurst, director HIT Lab NZ, University of Canterbury; and Chris Stapleton, creative director at Simiosys.

It was moderated by Steve Dann, founder of Medical Realities.

The debate was fairly contentious — a table of men shouting at each other — but it was insured to be with the inclusion of Scoble and Rubin, both opinionated and forceful in their expression of those opinions. (Rubin was part of another panel at the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality conference this past May.)

Initially, the panelists joked that the event started off as a VR v. VR debate. Scoble basically trashed the Samsung Gear VR, saying it was "a piece of shit," and that nothing apart from the Oculus Rift (Crescent Bay prototype) — and to a degree the Vive from Valve and HTC — has inspired such an emotional reaction from him.

He kept trying to bring the conversation back to 2016, and what the year might look like.

"Valve and Oculus are the ones who are going to be the story at CES," Scoble said.

In that regard, no one at the table tried to argue that 2016 would be a big year for commercial AR, but Billinghurst, Stapleton, and Mann wanted to move past not only the immediate one-year time frame, but the decades ahead, and even on to what AR and VR mean on a higher conceptual level.

And both Mann and Stapleton tried to steer the conversation away from being purely focused on hardware.

Rubin and Scoble showed little interest in that particular brand of conversation.

"Virtuality is a bridge, it's not the destination," Stapleton said. Later on in the debate, he referenced a ride at Universal Studios called The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, which was a mixed reality experience using motion-based 3D. His point was that no one walked out trying to decide what to label the ride, they just new it was cool and got their imaginations going.

Rubin expressed the opinion that having both AR and VR on the scene is confusing to developers and consumers, and that if AR wants to succeed in the future, it should essentially get out of the way of VR, while VR builds a market for this particular breed of wearable technology.

Mann argued that the future will see more in the way of mediated, or mixed reality.

From there, though, the debate circled back around on itself as the moderator posed no questions to shift the direction of the conversation.

The AR v. VR debate, in many ways, has been running for decades and will likely not come to a conclusion any time soon. What makes the debate problematic is the number of operational definitions that have to be established going in — for many, virtual reality lives inside the context of gaming. For others, there are far loftier goals relating to areas like education and telepresence. And in much the same way, there's augmented reality as a tool in use in various enterprise cases, like factory floors, or augmented reality as a life-enhancing aid that humans may not leave the house without one day.

While they share some parallels, they don't have to necessarily be opposites or even competitors, depending on how uses cases evolve.

In the short term, VR will, indeed, likely be the subject of much talk in 2016. AR, or some type of mediated reality, on the other hand might just be a near future step, perhaps when folks calm down about smart watches.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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