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Understanding the differences between virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality

By Loudon Blair, Senior Director, Corporate Strategy Office, Ciena | Aug. 11, 2016
There are many exciting use cases emerging, but network infrastructure will need to evolve

* Augmented Reality blurs the line between real and digital. The crucial difference between VR and AR lies in the way digital content is mixed with reality. Augmented reality (AR) doesn’t block out the world around the user in favor of a new, fabricated one; rather, it places a digital layer between the viewer and reality.

AR units are at least semi-transparent, allowing the user to see the world around them even as web pages, graphs, maps, and more are displayed in front of them (think Google Glass). This kind of technology also allows engineers and designers to see and manipulate models of what they’re working on alongside or overlaid onto their current work.  Similarly, a surgeon could use an AR visor to highlight specific anatomy, pull up a model of an organ for reference, or help train other surgeons.

AR can also work through mobile phones using the integrated camera, and is the kind of virtual reality that powers Pokémon Go, the mobile app that surpassed Twitter in active daily users a week after its release.  With Go, players wander around in their cities and towns and try to catch creatures that appear on top of the real world through their phone’s cameras. The game’s massive adoption shows the average consumer’s appetite for AR technologies.

Augmented reality is the most versatile of the “VR” technologies today.  Unlike VR systems that require users to remain tethered to a stationary unity, AR is typically delivered through a visor or portable screen that allows for mobile use.

The challenge is that the computational ability of a unit small and light enough to comfortably be supported by a human head is considerably small, and as such, services and content that work with AR units, for now, need to be low-bandwidth and require minimal computing power and minimal battery consumption.

If AR is to enter the mainstream and live up to the technology’s potential, there needs to be a way to deliver content to the devices with high bandwidth and low latency while allowing compute to happen outside the unit.  According to GSMA Intelligence, generic AR applications will require upwards of 100Mbps bandwidth throughput and nearly as low as 1ms delay—difficult specs for a device you can walk around with.

By offloading compute functions from the portable device to shared data center resources, power consumption of the device can be reduced, and sharing of the compute environment across many users can be maximized.  Again, the challenge here is latency, as it must be low enough so as to maintain the experience.

* Mixed Reality.  Mixed reality—MR—is a combination of both virtual and augmented reality. Whereas in AR, digital content is simply overlaid onto the real environment being viewed—typically informational content such as a timetable when looking at a train—with MR platforms, the digital world is integrated into the real world in an interactive way. MR use cases are diverse, and reach the everyday consumer.  For example, a homeowner could sample new furniture or paint colors as they would appear in their living room, without having to move the existing sofa.


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