VR/AR Headsets vs. Smart Glasses: What's the Difference?

Extended reality headsets are fundamentally different from smart glasses in how they're used, available features, immersion level, and price

VR/AR headsets and smart glasses can be used to enhance the way you go about your day, changing how you interact with and experience the world around you. Since these terms are often incorrectly conflated, we've examined the distinctions to clear up what these devices are so that you can make an informed decision when choosing one over the other.

VR vs Smart Glasses


Overall Findings

VR/AR Headsets
  • Large device, often wired, that fits over your whole head.

  • VR puts you in a totally virtual world; AR enhances how you view the real world.

  • Stationary use cases, like education, design, and entertainment.

  • More expensive than smart glasses.

Smart Glasses
  • Lightweight and easy to wear anywhere; akin to eyeglasses.

  • Overlays information on what you're already seeing.

  • Mobile use cases, like navigation, taking pictures, and viewing texts.

  • More affordable than VR/AR headsets.

VR/AR headsets and smart glasses are useful for different reasons. Extended reality headsets are pricier, larger, and not as comfortable when worn for long periods of time. While virtual travel experiences and movie streaming are best accomplished with a headset, smart glasses are good for when you're out and about and you want an easier way to do things like answer calls and listen to music.

VR headsets are often used for gaming because they can take over your entire vision and hearing to put you into a completely virtual world. AR headsets step back a little and provide virtual elements laid on top of the real world, so you see both at the same time. Smart glasses are very similar to AR headsets, but the virtual elements don't interact with the real world as if they're actually there.

Ease of Use: Smart Glasses Fit Like Regular Eyeglasses

VR/AR Headsets
  • Relatively bulky; difficult to wear while doing anything else.

  • Immobile; some are tethered to another device.

Smart Glasses
  • Designed to look and feel like eyeglasses.

  • Extremely mobile; no controllers or other accessories to carry around.

Due to how they're built and their intended use cases, VR/AR headsets are much larger than smart glasses. This makes them fine to wear at home, and exceptionally ideal for immersion, but they immediately become very unsafe when taken around traffic and other people.

Smart glasses provide enough area for you to still see regularly while taking advantage of their features. Since they fit like a pair of eyeglasses, they're much easier to keep on your face all day, which is why they can be used while exercising or working.

Features: Both Devices Have Relevant Capabilities

VR/AR Headsets
  • Virtual movie theater or video game world.

  • Training and education.

  • Meeting space for co-workers and friends.

Smart Glasses
  • Guided directions while walking, biking, etc.

  • Information hub; translations, captions, calendar alerts, texts, etc.

  • Hands-free video camera.

Virtual reality headsets fully encapsulate your vision, so they're ideal for rich simulated experiences like watching movies, playing video games, sightseeing, or learning a new skill that you can't safely perform without training. Augmented reality headsets blend the virtual and real in one image; AR applications include training, design, research, and shopping.

Smart glasses let you listen to music, take calls, capture pictures, receive notifications from your phone, and more. They're useful both inside and outside the house, because they're easy to wear, look more like a typical pair of eyeglasses, and are built to provide hands-free access to relevant information, such as phone notifications.

Immersion: VR Is Fully Simulated

VR/AR Headsets
  • VR headsets let you experience a completely virtual world.

  • AR headsets blend virtual and real world elements.

Smart Glasses
  • Your vision is hardly obstructed.

  • Day-to-day tasks aren't hindered.

Full immersion in a simulated 3D space is only possible with a virtual reality headset. Since your vision is fully covered by a screen, everything you see and "interact" with in the fake world can feel very much like the real world, so much so that you could even forget it's computer-generated.

VR systems usually include controllers or other hand-tracking elements that help further blur the lines between your real environment and the fake one, while smart glasses are more like a car's dashboard, but in eyeglass form. AR doesn't completely take over what your eyes see, but it's the next best thing before smart glasses, which are the least immersive of the three.

However, depending on how you think about the term immersion, one could argue that AR is just as immersive as VR. Augmented reality headsets let you be engrossed in the real world, and if the quality of the virtual elements are realistic enough, one could lose awareness of the CGI altogether.

Price: Smart Glasses Are Far More Affordable

VR/AR Headsets
  • Powerful hardware doesn't come cheap.

  • Could cost as much as thousands of dollars.

Smart Glasses
  • Fewer features means cheaper prices.

  • Usually priced at under a few hundred dollars.

Although smart glasses are easier to wear, this convenience doesn't mean they're pricier than VR or AR headsets. Some of the best smart glasses are often listed at just a couple hundred dollars or less, while the best VR headsets are usually more than twice that, sometimes well over one or two thousand dollars.

Final Verdict: Both Options Have Their Benefits

It's not really an either-or decision because extended reality headsets and smart glasses both have their place, depending on your wants and needs.

VR headsets are far superior if you're after life-like experiences limited only by the imagination of software developers. AR headsets are ideal for the best of both the real and virtual world. Smart glasses provide a neat way to get real-time information on the go without pulling out your phone or smartwatch.

VR/AR headsets are the clear winner if price isn't a concern and you want that deep immersion level that's impossible through smart glasses. However, smart glasses are an excellent choice if you're working with a limited budget and you still want some form of altered reality that you can use as you go about your day.

  • What is augmented reality used for?

    If you have an iPhone, you can use the AR-powered Measure app to project measurements onto real objects in front of you. Augmented reality is also a growing trend in gaming, with titles like Pokémon Go placing virtual characters in the real world. Most of the use cases involve overlaying relevant information onto a live view, which companies can use for object identification, immersive gaming, and education.

  • How do virtual-reality headsets work?

    Generally, virtual-reality headsets have two screens inside: one for each eye. They project slightly different images, so when your brain processes and compiles the visual information, it combines them into a 3D image. Some lower-end headsets use your phone and a pair of lenses which can separate a VR video into the separate images for each side.

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