AR vs. VR vs. MR vs. XR: What's the Difference?

All augmented, virtual, and mixed reality experiences are called ‘extended reality,’ but each is different in very specific ways

If you've heard of immersive video games, virtual travel, or AR shopping, then you've no doubt run into labels like augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), mixed reality (MR), and extended reality (XR). We've reviewed these terms in depth to learn what they mean and how they differ so you can have some clarity about which one is right for you.

AR vs VR vs MR vs XR


Overall Findings

Virtual elements overlayed on the real world. Fully virtual experience. Anchored virtual elements that can interact with the real world. Umbrella term for AR, VR, and MR.
Works through a headset or smartphone. Works through a headset. Usually works through a headset.
View your physical surroundings at the same time.  View only the virtual world.  View your physical surroundings at the same time.  
Can be used for free through mobile apps. There are free apps, but they require a headset. Can be used for free through mobile apps.

Extended reality is a blanket term that refers to a group of technologies: augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality. Therefore, a virtual reality headset and an augmented reality headset, for example, while different, are both considered extended reality technologies.

These perception-changing tech deal with virtual elements, meaning an onboard computer generates all the objects. In VR, the CGI fully covers your vision, so you're immersed in a totally fake world. AR and MR use computer-generated images, too, but since the point is to also see your surroundings, those elements don't take over your whole vision. Instead, your physical environment is enhanced or changed in some way.

You can use some AR and MR implementations from a standard smartphone without needing headgear, but VR requires a full headset.

The rest of this article doesn't include XR in the comparison tables because it's a term used to describe the other three. It's akin to comparing computer hardware with a mouse, keyboard, and webcam.

Technology: VR Blocks Your Vision, AR/MR Doesn't

Superimposes virtual elements on real world items. Shows only virtual elements. Superimposes virtual elements on real world items.

Before digging into these XR technologies, we first need to make a clear distinction between how they work. The links at the beginning of this article provide an in-depth look, but for now, you need to know that there's a single factor that separates AR and MR from VR, and that's the fact that VR totally blocks your vision.

Virtual reality is built to hide everything but computer-generated images. Augmented reality and mixed reality are built to show you the real world and the virtual world.

It works this way because AR and MR, as you'll read below, are designed to enhance and change what you're already doing and seeing around you, while VR is designed to replace reality with something completely fake.

Availability: AR Can Run Straight From a Phone

Can work through a smartphone. Requires a headset. Usually requires a headset.
Often free when used from a phone. There are free apps, but only after you have the hardware. Most useful after purchasing a headset, but it's not always necessary.

In terms of widespread availability, AR (and sometimes MR) is already in use on smartphones all over the world. By just holding your phone in front of you, you can experience things like live language translations, filters that change how your face looks in real-time, and 3D models anchored in space.

Contrast this with virtual reality that's available only through a headset, and it's clear how easily accessible AR and some MR implementations are with nothing more than a smartphone. Most mixed reality experiences are accomplished through a headset, too, but with the line blurred so much between these terms, you could say some form of MR is also possible with just a phone.

Furthermore, there are plenty of free AR/MR apps, so no additional investment is needed to experience those XR types, which can't be said for virtual reality.

Immersion: VR Is the Clear Winner, MR Is Close

You see both real and virtual elements. Everything you see is virtual. You see both real and virtual elements.
View simulated elements in the real world. View and interact with fully simulated objects in a fake world. View and interact with fully simulated objects in the real world.

An immersive experience is one meant to simulate a totally different reality, ideally making you forget that you're even in it. VR is the only extended reality method of achieving that because you're completely engrossed in the simulated world. If you walk around in the room with your real legs, you won't know where you're going because you can't see anything but what the computer is generating (though, some VR experiences digitize real obstacles for safety reasons).

However, if you think of immersion as an altered perception where your environment is simply different from what it is usually, then MR is a close second because there's a level of interaction between the virtual and real elements, something that AR doesn't permit.

Mixed reality objects can be anchored in real space, meaning you can physically walk around them and often interact with them as if they were real. It creates a solid bridge between a completely real and a completely virtual environment.

Applications: VR/MR Excel in Education, VR in Entertainment

Guided navigation. Fully immersive gameplay. 3D asset collaboration.
Training exercises. Training exercises. Training exercises.
Real-time diagnostics. Real-time, avatar-based socializing. Semi-immersive gameplay.
Gaming and shopping. Virtual movie theater and other entertainment. Enhanced marketing.

There are lots of applications for all three XR types, and many of them bleed into the others.

AR includes your real surroundings, so it's useful for critical information in the real world, like overlaying on a body a hospital patient's vitals or X-ray details for precision surgery. Similar is MR, which isn't as helpful for a scenario like that, but instead more beneficial for 'performing' the surgery with virtual objects, something that might be set up during an unqualified surgeon's training phase.

Arguably more relevant to the masses are entertainment and gaming. AR, VR, and MR create fun experiences in their own unique ways, but the deepest immersion level can be had only through virtual reality. With VR, an entire movie theater can be erected just for you, and realistic first-person shooter video games and virtual tourism are best enjoyed with a headset and no distractions from the outside world.

AR and MR can drastically change how we shop by letting us do all sorts of neat reality-bending tasks, like trying on clothes, seeing if the furniture will fit in a room, and viewing customer ratings on top of in-store products. Even VR can provide a fully simulated shopping mall for you to browse through with just a headset.

Final Verdict: They All Have Their Place

All three of these extended reality types are useful, so the one you choose depends entirely on what you want to accomplish. AR and MR are built for truly mixing real and imaginary elements, with the latter having an edge over the former by leaning deeper into the actual mixing of realities. While VR doesn't let you view the real world around you, it excels in that you're fully immersed in a digital reality that you can enjoy alone or with friends.

If escapism and rich, life-like experiences like gaming are what you're after, you can't go wrong with VR. While MR is nearly synonymous with AR, its advantage is that it feels more real than augmented reality because you can interact with virtual elements that stay where they are regardless of how you view them. AR, however, is much more ubiquitous, available in some form on nearly all modern smartphones, often for free.

  • What is Windows Mixed Reality?

    Windows Mixed Reality is a virtual- and augmented-reality framework built into Windows 10 and 11. The main hardware it uses is HoloLens 2, a set of AR glasses. WMR also runs Windows-compatible VR games like Beat Saber.

  • How is augmented reality used in businesses?

    The most common way you'll see businesses use augmented reality is in mobile shopping apps. For example, you might be able to use AR to see how a piece of furniture or art will look in your home. Businesses may also use AR internally for training (e.g., projecting assembly instructions onto a workspace or identifying different work tools).

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