The incredible worlds of augmented and virtual realities aren’t just here; they’re getting bigger and better by the day. What once seemed like something out of a science fiction movie now is easily accessible for millions of users. From entertaining but relatively simple augmented reality
(AR) experiences to full immersion virtual reality
(VR), there’s so much to explore.
In this article, we’ll unpack a variety of options across both platforms and at a range of price points. And as the possibilities for both types of applications grow, there’s an ever-expanding base of free experiences available as long as you have the right tech or a compatible smartphone. But before we dive in, we’ll get you started with a quick primer on the key characteristics of both AR and VR technology.
The basics of VR and AR
With VR tech, you’re typically interacting with a computer-generated 3D environment using a combination of sensors and equipment. Every system starts with a headset to drop you into the virtual world. From there, you can find more complicated setups that rely on motion tracking and projection systems to provide complete full-immersion VR.
VR is an older and perhaps more familiar concept, primarily because it has had a range of appearances in pop culture. There were even some early options available for use at more well-equipped gaming facilities, like the immersive Virtuality pods that popped up in the early 1990s . This differs from the most common new AR applications, most of which depend on more recent mobile technology.
That’s not to say VR hasn’t made it to mobile - quite the opposite. Thanks to simple do-it-yourself options that turn your smartphone into a VR headset, mobile tech has opened up significant options for both “realities.”
AR is a newer application that essentially overlays onto the real world. How this is visualized and exactly what is overlaid depends on the technology you’re using. For most users, it’s as simple as a smartphone or a pair of smart glasses.
Some augmented reality tech can display information about a particular area as you pass through it, a use seen more often with smart glasses. The basic principle is to create additional layers of interaction, and this can range from visualizations of data points to full-blown video games.
This more straightforward approach can make AR sound limited compared to VR, but it all depends on the complexity of the system. Common AR applications have spread thanks to the rise of mobile technology, but the potential technical uses are extensive and, in many cases, yet to be thoroughly explored.
What is the difference between AR and VR?
The fundamental difference in how you experience AR vs VR is simply the contrast between partial and full immersion. VR offers total immersion in an artificial environment, while AR overlays its visuals with the real world.
As more and more people find opportunities to dive into VR and AR applications, the functional differences between the two
are important to know. It’s easy to confuse the two, especially when getting into the nitty-gritty of the technology, so it’s helpful to remember what separates them from each other.
The most popular AR and VR formats
Are you looking for an entry into the worlds of AR and VR, but not sure how to go about it? Depending on your budget and interests, it’s best to think about which format is most appealing to you. Then, you need to think about how much you’re willing to spend and how much space you have in your home to utilize this technology.
If you have limited space or can’t commit to a more in-depth system, exploring AR apps and mobile formats can be a better place for beginners to get started. They offer a lower threshold for access with much simpler systems to use and maintain. For many of the most popular or best-known AR experiences, all you need is a smartphone.
For dedicated VR, the best immersive experiences require wearable tech. VR headsets are a popular and relatively uncomplicated solution, for example, the high-resolution HP Reverb virtual reality headset
. There’s a powerful combo device for performance and mobility as well; the HP Z VR backpack workstation
, which is tailored to provide a robust but also convenient experience.
The best immersive interactive experiences
1. Cartoon Network Journeys VR by Paper Crane Games
Designed for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, Cartoon Network Journeys VR
is the latest showpiece from the company’s growing in-house VR lab. Structured as a compilation of three short games involving many different artists, you arrive at a campsite to meet gatekeeper Gormlorm (Reggie Watts). The character presents you with “the dimensional deck,” which is a way to navigate each of the unique experiences.
Cartoon Network’s penchant for surreal imagery and novel storytelling is a great foundation for experimenting with new immersive and interactive experiences. For example, you may also remember their bizarre We Bare Bears: Food Truck Rush production with Daniel Chong and AiSolve . As the technology and market continues to develop, this type of experimentation is sure to grow in parallel.
2. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim VR by Bethesda Softworks
Based on the popular fifth installment in the long-running Elder Scrolls
series, the VR version of Bethesda’s Skyrim
offers a stunning recreation of a watershed moment in open-world RPGs. It also includes all the DLC including the acclaimed Dawnguard
, and Dragonborn
Set in the expansive and storied world of Tamriel, players are immersed in the region’s far northern province of Skyrim. Against the backdrop of a conflict between Stormcloak rebels and the ruling Empire, you must explore and learn how to defeat the powerful dragon Alduin. The game was already considered immersive in its original format, and Skyrim VR only ups the ante. It’s available for both Sony’s PSVR platform and on Steam.
3. Fallout 4 VR by Bethesda Softworks
Fallout 4 VR
is another entry on our list that takes a hugely popular title and adapts it into one of the most immersive VR games
available. Developed by Bethesda, the game returns players to a post-apocalyptic America to take control of a lone survivor from Vault 111. You’ll explore a meticulous, futuristic imagining of Boston and the surrounding region as you encounter other factions and uncover the mysteries of what its inhabitants still call the Commonwealth.
Unlike the Skyrim adaptation, Fallout 4 VR doesn’t include the DLC, but it’s still an enormous world to explore with new mechanics and gameplay options to enjoy. It’s no surprise that players are still eager to dive in and take a look, even as the latest game in the series, Fallout 76, continues to develop and build its own audience.
4. Google Maps
One of the most commonly used navigational aids already offers an extremely limited form of AR via their Street View feature, but Google has shown signs of how they plan to build on the base experience. While it’s unclear when the full version will launch, there’s a beta version available for Pixel users that overlays with up-to-date Street View images to offer extra guidance for Maps users .
Current features are fairly simple, providing superior visual directions and information about your route, your current location, and different distances or directions. It’s still easy to imagine how many other features and uses could emerge during development, and even more as mobile technology adds new AR capabilities.
5. Ingress Prime by Niantic
Set in the aftermath of an alien discovery, the original Ingress
and now successor Ingress Prime
divides players into two factions based on their reaction and approach to the new situation. The Enlightened seek to use the discovery, while the Resistance aims to fight the alien intrusion as a threat. As the player, you choose a side and participate in a variety of location-based activities to explore and advance an ongoing narrative, giving the game a long shelf-life for dedicated users.
While the first Ingress is older and not as well-known as competitor Pokémon Go, not everything can be a social media sensation like Go. Plus, Ingress Prime offers regular events and was actually produced by Niantic, one of the three developers involved with Go. The latest version learns from Pokémon Go’s success and is more immersive than the original.
6. Pokémon Go by Niantic
Created by the Pokémon Company in tandem with Niantic and Nintendo, Pokémon Go
helped revolutionize augmented reality after its initial release in 2016. It’s free to play and supports a substantial base of users with a still-growing pool of content. Plus its calendar of recurring events continues to drive community interest.
The premise of the game is simple. It creates an in-game world populated with Pokémon based on your location. Users collect Pokémon as they go about their regular lives, with some incentive to take detours and explore different areas like parks and small businesses to find less common varieties. Added content and a well-maintained ecosystem make this an appealing entry to AR gaming, even several years after release.
Plenty to enjoy but the best may be yet to come
Thanks to new technology and successful games, AR and VR users already have a lot of options. They range from experimental niche games with a simple focus and go all the way up to huge open-world titles for players to get lost in.
How and what you play is up to you and your preferred tech. Whether you use fully-immersive VR gear or enjoy AR with your smartphone, new applications are constantly emerging in both fields. Make the most of what you already own and reimagine the world around you with AR, or use VR to take off somewhere altogether new - the choice is yours.