UX Design11 minute read

Augmented Reality vs. Virtual Reality vs. Mixed Reality: An Introductory Guide

Toptalauthors are vetted experts in their fields and write on topics in which they have demonstrated experience. All of our content is peer reviewed and validated by Toptal experts in the same field.

Despite having many things in common, virtual, augmented, and mixed reality are not the same. Learn the essential differentiators and design considerations for these promising cousin technologies.

Toptalauthors are vetted experts in their fields and write on topics in which they have demonstrated experience. All of our content is peer reviewed and validated by Toptal experts in the same field.
Tidjane Tall

Tidjane Tall

Tidjane is a UX/UI design leader who connects user’s needs and goals to deliver strategic solutions for companies like Adobe and Google.


Despite having many things in common, VR, AR, and MR are not the same thing. We discuss the key differentiators, driving forces, and use cases for these three promising related technologies.

Today’s technology has come a long way from the days of View-Master’s thin cardboard discs containing seven stereoscopic 3D pairs of small color photographs, to today’s VR and its close cousin AR. In fact, thanks to heavy investments from giants like Facebook, Google, Samsung, and many others betting on high-value returns, virtual and augmented reality are finding their way into our newsfeeds more and more frequently.


In this article, we start by highlighting the nuances between VR, AR, and MR, and then take a quick trip back in time to see how VR/AR evolved. Finally, we evaluate how they fit in today’s reality, and how they may affect tomorrow’s.

What Is Virtual Reality (VR)?

Virtual Reality, or VR, is a simulated and immersive experience projected by a device into the user’s sight. Imagine walking down the Champs-Elisée (Paris), while still sitting in your basement in San Francisco. All you need is a headset projecting you into a simulation via a viewfinder. That’s exactly what VR promises, and much more.

How Does VR work?

GIF folding a Google Pixel phone into a DayDream Headset

Some of you may remember what a thrilling experience it was using Mattel’s View-Master, which was introduced in the 1960s. Today’s VR is the modern version of that stereoscopic sightseeing effect: It requires a set of lenses inside a viewport on a headset, and a mounted device where the experience is stored or computed.

GIF of someone painting in 3D space with virtual reality using HTC Vive Tilt Brush VR App

From pure observation to complete immersion, the range of VR capabilities varies depending on the device and type of headset used. Using a remote control in sync with the mounted headset allows the user to interact with 3D objects in space, within the experience—either for VR games or virtual interfaces and apps.

The Brief History of VR and Its Evolution Through Time

Leaving aside the technicality of VR for a moment, and focusing on the immersive 360° experience that it aims to project us into, we could argue that virtual reality started from the “360-degree murals (or panoramic paintings) from the nineteenth century,” as the Virtual Reality Society states on their History of Virtual Reality. We shifted from an early flight simulator (1929), to Morton’s first VR Head Mounted Display in 1960, to Neo experiencing the whole world as a simulation inside The Matrix in 1999.

Which Companies Are Leading the VR Market Today?

People wearing main VR headset in the market today: Google Daydream, Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Rift, Sony Playstation VR, HTC Vive

Fast forward to 2014 where Google initiated a mass market DIY headset that uses a smartphone to drive the VR experience: Google Cardboard. Samsung followed the year after with their Gear VR, and the new race for virtual reality was officially on. Officially acquired in June 2014, Oculus VR joined the Facebook family to accelerate its aim for domination in the high-end spectrum of the virtual reality headset.

What Is Augmented Reality (AR)?

Just as the name suggests, Augmented Reality, or AR, adds to our perception of the world by overlapping computer generated graphics, images, or a set of interactive data.

Apple AR demo at WWDC 2017, a 3D rendered chameleon on a table in augmented reality

How Does AR Work?

As of today, AR only requires a smartphone with a camera and an AR app. Two key elements that make it work are the camera capacity to capture the environment around you as you move and the software that calculates and projects some computer-generated visuals or content.

IKEA Place AR App Demo showing 3D rendered furniture projected on a living room in AR

One great example of this in action is IKEA’s recent AR app that allows anyone to imagine how any room or space would feel with some of the brand’s furniture.

Designers and architects could clearly benefit from this new way of creating life-scale objects in a real life context. “Now, technology has caught up with our ambition. AR lets us redefine the experience for furniture retail once more, in our restless quest to create a better everyday life for everyone, everywhere,” says Michael Valdsgaard, Leader of Digital Transformation at Inter IKEA Systems.

A Brief History of AR

From casting the first virtual yellow line marker during a live NFL game in 1998 to overlapping map data to assist NASA flight simulations, augmented reality has lived outside of science fiction for many decades.

Back in 1974, Myron Kruger combined projectors and video cameras in an interactive environment—it was the birth of AR as we know it today.

More recently, AR took a big leap towards wider adoption at Apple’s WWDC 17 when AR development was introduced to the masses with ARKit, a development framework for augmented reality applications created for iPhones and iPads.

ARkit vs. ARCore – The Fight Between Apple and Google for AR Domination

Apple ARKit against Google ARCore augmented reality technologies

Apple’s ARKit for iOS 11 promises to democratize AR content development and mass consumption. It is a direct response to Google’s ARCore who have the advantage of leveraging its knowledge from also being in the VR space, contrary to Apple. Both AR design and development frameworks promise to simplify and accelerate the creation process and put the technology in the hands of millions already using Android and iOS phones.

As augmented reality apps are still new to the mass market, it is too early to tell how really different these development kits are, except that they are each specific to their own operating systems and core audiences.

Now that the two most prominent tech companies—between them controlling 99% of the smartphone market—have made such a public move behind augmented reality, we should be ready to see industries being disrupted—again.

What About Mixed Reality (MR)?

Mixed reality is a hybrid of VR and AR and aims to offer the best of both worlds. For instance, while it uses a headset just like VR, seeing through a translucent viewport or glass, it also projects visuals on top of our environment.

What makes MR stand out is its highly interactive aspect, and the realistic rendering of the projection it adds to our surroundings. Instead of depending solely on remote controllers or phone screens, we can interact with the immersive content using natural body and finger gestures.

Apple and Google clearly lead the way on AR technology, but today’s MR landscape favors Microsoft (HoloLens), and massively funded Magic Leap (so far a concept demo only).

Microsoft HoloLens and Magic Leap – The Two Kings of the Mixed Reality Race

Microsoft HoloLens

GIF of Microsoft HoloLens mixed reality application demo - anatomical study

Despite the commercial failure of Google Glass, Microsoft didn’t shy away from trying their own “holographic computer” in the MR game. The name “HoloLens” comes from the core experience “enabling you to engage with your digital content and interact with holograms in the world around you.”

Magic Leap

GIF of Magic Leap mixed reality technology demo---interactive 3D virtual elephant

As one of the most funded pre-product startups, this Google-backed venture is also one of the tech industry’s most secretive projects ever. Magic Leap CEO Rony Abovitz calls it “cinematic reality—a complete shift in visual computing.” This mixed-reality technology company tackles the challenge of designing for interactive environments by leveraging the best of both virtual and augmented reality systems.

Although it hasn’t been made public yet, the holographic glasses use Dynamic Digitised Lightfield Signal—projecting images directly into the eye and “tricking” the brain into thinking it’s real. The result is a richer and more believable augmented experience.

How Are VR, AR, and MR Redefining the Way We See and Experience the World?

VR for Entertainment and Mass Media Consumption

GIF of Lego Star Wars 360 landing page moving the page view in panoramic

One of the obvious winners from the emergence of VR is the entertainment industry. Lego Star Wars 360 Experience is one example of great adoption and implementation of virtual reality, making it possible for viewers to experience storytelling in a totally different way.

By announcing the first ever standalone VR headset (not requiring a phone or a computer to be attached to it) tech giant Facebook is on the offensive with its plan to democratize VR.

AR Reinvents Nintendo—a Century-old Company—Almost Overnight

With the explosive success of Pokemon Go in 2016, the world had its first look at how AR could literally “move” our reality by augmenting it with little monsters popping in and out of our smartphone screens.

GIF extract from Pokemon Go promo videos

Mixed Reality. Merged Reality? Mixed Feelings.

With unclear distinctions from its cousins VR and AR, mixed reality has a hard time defining its future.

Just like VR, MR uses a headset to launch the experience. But mixed reality devices are different from typical VR hardware because they use mounted translucent glasses like Google Glass that let us stay grounded in the real world—the virtual reality is mixed with actual reality.

Like AR, MR overlays digital content and simulations on top of what we would normally see. But mixed reality experiences let you physically interact with the simulation in ways that AR can’t… yet. And instead of depending on your phone screen alone, you can use your body and remote controllers to engage with the environment more interactively.

Reality roadmap according to Intel, which prefers the term merged reality to mixed reality

The VR, AR, and MR Landscape in Numbers

In order to really pick up and reach wider adoption, financial traction will be a key indicator of both technological and experiential traction.

Backed by high-profile investors such as Alphabet’s Google Ventures, Alibaba, and Andreessen Horowitz, Magic Leap leads the MR investments game with nearly $2 billion in venture funding to date.

Let’s review the major investments on key VR/AR companies in the market today.

Bar chart of major investments on key VR/AR companies in the market

Design Considerations for the New Realities

Designing for VR, AR, and MR is akin to creating new realities. This new paradigm of immersive and multi-dimensional content crafting demands new rules and considerations. Augmented, virtual, and mixed reality design leverages existing skills ranging from visual design (3D, UI) to experience design (UX, product) and development, among others.

From an understanding of human anatomy, empathy, sound to visual design and beyond—when it comes to designing outside of the standard 2D rectangular canvas, creatives have a brand new playing field.

3D and Visual Design

3D objects and mesh

Virtual reality designers must use a completely different approach and set of tools when crafting immersive experiences and interfaces. More precisely, they have to think outside 2D screen or rectangles and instead think of their creative canvas as a boundless 360° space.

Everything becomes three dimensional, and consequently, VR designers are better off collaborating with 3D experts and/or acquiring a basic understanding of 3D graphics using WebGL and other open-source tools.

Popular 3D creation software includes:

Understanding Scale and Positioning

Graphic of a person in a room with space measurements for HTC Vive VR space requirements

Scale and positioning considerations for VR and AR design are linked and affect each other. On one hand, the distance of an element from the viewer affects legibility and how easily one can interact with it. On the other hand, the scale of an object within the simulated reality reflects how big/small, or far/near the same object would be in the real the world.

Tracking and Movement

Oculus Rift Touch Controllers - VR Motion Tracking System

The concept of motion tracking is tied to the virtual, augmented, and mixed reality hardware and software used. For example, while Google Cardboard mostly allows basic motion tracking from the phone’s accelerometer, the more recent Google Daydream VR headset comes with a remote controller that allows you to point at things and drives interactions within the virtual space.

At the higher end of the spectrum, immersive systems like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive allow more responsive motion tracking systems and interactive controllers.

Designing for motion trackers and controllers requires a good understanding of natural human gestures and physical affordance. Getting this right helps enhance the immersion effect.

Taking Cues from More Traditional Disciplines

List of traditional art and animation principles

It’s not necessary to re-invent the wheel when it comes to designing for AR/VR/MR. Much the same as when we transitioned from print to web, we can take a lot of cues and apply many principles from more traditional art forms.

For instance, color theory, composition rules, and lighting best practices still apply to new media. Because it’s still the real world that we’re attempting to emulate and experience in a different context, by taking advantage of the new technologies, core visual arts principles can be leveraged when designing for the new realities we are building.

Animation and Transition Principles

Animated GIF of a bouncing square

The same goes for animation principles—transition effect and movement in a virtual reality gain a lot of believability when the 12 Principles of Animation (by none other than Disney) are applied. Let’s briefly review them:

  1. Squash and Stretch: Expanding and compressing an object to simulate weight and volume in motion.
  2. Anticipation: An indicator that an important action is about to take place.
  3. Staging: Having a clear intention throughout every state/position of an object.
  4. Straight Ahead and Pose to Pose: Defining start and end states first, then filling in the gap.
  5. Follow Through and Overlapping Action: When many pieces in motion come to a stop, they don’t all stop at once.
  6. Slow-In and Slow-Out: A.k.a. easing effect - going slow, then fast, then slow.
  7. Arc: Simply put, adding a little bit a curviness in most movements.
  8. Secondary Action: Adding to a primary action to reinforce or complement it.
  9. Timing: Using speed or latency to simulate physics or time scale.
  10.  Exaggeration: Accentuating specific movements to help emphasize something.
  11. Solid Drawings: Making things look more three dimensional.
  12.  Appeal: This principle calls for interesting and compelling characteristics.

Tools and Resources

In the interest of democratizing these emerging technologies and stimulating a spirit of co-creation, many companies share their design and development frameworks with the world. Here are some key resources to get you started with virtual, augmented, and mixed realities:

The Future of Augmented, Virtual, and Mixed Realities

AR has shown a broader adoption rate if we consider the worldwide success of the Pokemon Go hit. Today, all it takes to experience augmented reality is a smartphone with an up-to-date OS, a decent camera, and an AR app—there is no cost of entry, and we have the whole world as our canvas.

The recent entry of Apple into the AR game promises to even further boost augmented reality trends. Tim Cook has voiced his position on the matter: “There are clearly some cool niche things for VR, but it’s not profound in my view. AR is profound.”

Despite a longer history than AR or MR, virtual reality seems to have an audience problem, mostly because of the high cost of adoption getting a decent VR headset, the physical discomfort with prolonged use, and the lack of concrete use cases for the technology.

“How does virtual reality work?” is a question we often hear online as well as at VR events. Notwithstanding, many sectors could use the technology to create new opportunities. For example, virtual reality in the automotive industry shows some exciting possibilities.

Lastly, mixed reality is the perfect blending of real, augmented, and virtual reality. “Applications are endless,” says Avegant CEO Joerg Tewes. He muses on how designers and engineers could directly manipulate 3D models with their hands. “Mixed reality enables people to interact directly with their ideas rather on screens or keyboards,” he adds.

The world is on the verge of expanding its boundaries with immersive 3D content and the digital realm like never before. It’s a unique opportunity for designers, engineers, and companies alike to join the revolution.

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