Virtual, Augmented, Mixed Reality – what is the difference?

Whether it’s in gaming, healthcare or day-to-day life, we keep hearing the terms “virtual reality”, “augmented reality” and “mixed reality” more and more often. But what do they actually mean and how are these technologies different from each other?

Virtual Reality

How would you like to take a trip to the edge of space, from the comfort of your living room?

Hike dangerous mountain trails without really putting yourself at risk?

Or perhaps take a gondola ride in Venice on a whim?

With Virtual Reality (VR) technology, all of this and much more, is now possible. All you need is a VR headset (e.g. Oculus Rift, Sony Playstation VR, Google Daydream, Google Cardboard) and perhaps accessories like hand-controllers or headphones.

Virtual Reality (VR) is a three-dimensional, computer-generated environment that can be explored and interacted with, whilst being completely immersed1. In layman terms, virtual reality technology creates an environment that we experience as though we are really there, able to move and handle objects around you.

Many industries such as health, film-making, sports, entertainment, retail or travel are now invested in exploring the potential of VR.

Unsurprisingly, the social media giants are also embracing virtual reality. Facebook bought Oculus VR in 2014 as they believe that virtual reality “will change the way we work, play and communicate with each other” 2.

“This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures”3, says Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Augmented Reality

Augmented reality is different from VR because it’s not immersive so it allows you to be aware of your surroundings4. Through an AR-enabled device, you can overlay digital content such as images, objects, data, etc. and experience it as if it was actually there.

Smartphones are the most accessible devices for using this technology, with a variety of apps available to download that support augmented reality technology.

You can use AR for home decorating projects, trying on clothes or even imagining what a tattoo would look like on you.

It can also be used for educational purposes, in sports (by projecting the score of the game for example) or marketing (by enhancing ads or promotional material with a digital element, creating real-life product demos).

Another area where AR is taking off is social media. Snapchat was the first app to introduce the technology by allowing us to overlay various face filters over our appearance, followed up by content for our surroundings. Facebook and Instagram continued this by adding fun elements to their photo-camera and messaging feature.

Mixed Reality


This is where it gets interesting as Mixed Reality is a mix of both VR and AR, with digital and physical objects co-existing and interacting in real time.  

This mixed technology has been brought to the consumer market by Microsoft, with their innovative HoloLens device- a headset resembling a pair of glasses that projects computer generated content onto your surroundings. Like a hologram, it allows you to manipulate what you see while still being aware of your immediate environment.
This means you can swipe, zoom and move objects with gestures as well as through voice control or with your gaze.

We were recently part of a revolutionary procedure that made use of the Microsoft Windows Mixed Reality and HoloLens. Two of BMI Healthcare’s leading consultants, Prof. Shafi Ahmed and Dr Hitesh Patel, consulted with a surgeon in India on a complex bowel cancer surgery by using Hololens technology. You can find out more about their experience here.

More devices that use Windows Mixed Reality have been launched or announced, which validates that Microsoft is determined to make mixed reality the future of computing.  

To find out more call us on 0808 101 0337 or make an online enquiry.


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Consultants Shafi Ahmed & Hitesh Patel from BMI The London Independent Hospital use the Microsoft HoloLens to assist with bowel cancer surgery in this global first.

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