As a virtual reality agency, we’re frequently the client’s first point of contact when they are looking to create interactive digital experiences to engage their customers. We often field client questions about the difference between 360° photos, 360° video, 3D content, virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality. Providing concrete definitions for these terms presents a challenge as the terms themselves have not been standardized and are often used interchangeably, even within the VR/AR industry.
All the interactive technologies listed above are similar in that they are user-driven digital experiences. With traditional digital media, pressing play initiates a directed experience that is essentially the same every time it is consumed. The fundamental difference between traditional digital media and interactive media technologies is that with interactive technologies, individuals have choices to make. On the surface, this may seem like a trivial difference, but it results in a fundamentally different user experience. With interactive media, choices as simple as the viewer deciding whether to look left or right mean an interactive experience has incredible potential for presenting the same media providing the same viewer with a novel experience many times over.
Lets first consider 360° photos, 360° video, and 3D content. It’s a common misconception that all of these types of media are three-dimensional content. However, the vast majority of 360° photos and 360° video are actually two dimensional… they are captured with a single viewpoint which results in your viewable area being a digital “sphere” of media. You can look up, down, left and right, but there is no element of depth to the content. If you have navigated Google Street View or watched a Facebook 360° video, you have interacted with 360° content.
3D content literally adds another dimension to the experience. Types of 3D content include stereoscopic 360° media, where multiple cameras mimic the position of the viewer’s eyes, providing a true sense of depth within a 360° scene. Consider stereoscopic 360° panoramas as 3D “lite” in that a sense of depth is achieved, but there is still limited mobility within a scene. True 3D navigation is achieved when a viewer has six degrees of freedom with how they navigate content. The six degrees of freedom include: left/right, up/down, forward/backward, roll, pitch, and yaw. If this sounds a bit like a flight simulator, then your mind is on the right track with how you are understanding 3D spaces.
3D content is not limited to navigable digital spaces. Digital objects may also be viewed in three dimensions. 3D digital objects are a little more difficult to conceptualize as most people have only interacted with 3D objects and 3D spaces on a 2D computer screen.
Next, let’s consider virtual, augmented, and mixed reality. Attempting to think of these technologies as types of media often results in confusion… perhaps a better way to think of them is that they are ways in which both interactive media (360° and 3D content) and traditional media (standard video, photos, etc.) can be consumed.
Virtual Reality (VR) is an experience that replaces your real world with a virtual one… you are entirely removed from your reality, and immersed in a new digital world that you can interact with. By transcending time and geography, VR has great potential to provide viewers with a glimpse inside an experience far removed from their current location. Imagine sampling your Hawaii vacation before you book the trip, or taking a factory tour before deciding to import a product. These are some of the problems VR technologies can help solve.
Augmented Reality (AR) is an entirely different experience than VR. With Augmented Reality, you stay present in your world, and your environment around you is supplemented, or augmented with digital information. Imagine a world in which you walk down the street holding up your phone and you are presented with digital information based on your location and what your camera observes. This could be a video notifying you of a sale at your favorite store, a digital walking path you can follow, or an opportunity to learn more about a product simply by looking at it. At its core, AR enhances the experience you have in your existing world by overlaying relevant digital information.
Mixed Reality (MR) is an enhanced form of Augmented Reality. Similar to AR, your real world is supplemented with digital information, but with Mixed Reality, the digital information you observe is in a form that is responsive to both you and the real world around you. Mixed reality applications would allow you to do things like stage your living room with digital furniture, enable a doctor to view a holographic reconstruction of a surgical procedure or allow a mechanic to consult an interactive holographic tutorial showing which bolt needs to be removed next.
Applications for 360° imagery, 3D content, and VR, AR and MR are exciting to consider, especially considering the interactive media industry is just beginning to evolve. Hopefully, this brief summary has provided a bit of clarity regarding the nuances of these technologies and their applications that has piqued your curiosity and encouraged you to want to learn more.
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