What is the Difference between Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality?

November 16, 2020

What is the Difference between Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality?

With virtual reality, augmented reality, and now a mixed reality, it is understandable that people are getting a little confused. This is often worsened by the devices used, many of which support virtual reality, augmented reality, and/or mixed reality on similar-looking devices.

As there is a lot of confusion between these terms, here we look at the properties and differences of each.

Putting it in simple terms, here are the key differences:

  • Virtual Reality (VR) puts you in an immersive virtual environment
  • Augmented Reality (AR) can augment reality and add elements to the real world around us with which we can interact with in limited ways
  • Mixed Reality (MR) takes augmented reality to a new level, allowing for more accurate integration of objects and also more natural ways of interacting with these virtual elements

The technologies that are driving these experiences are developing at impressive rates. This is largely due to various industries taking an interest in and adopting the use of these for business and government services.

The market is no longer simply about entertainment but is now attracting big businesses, such as airports and medical services. With this injection of new and large amounts of corporate and government capital, combined with far more potential for uses, the augmented reality and mixed reality markets are expected to grow significantly over the next 5-10 years.

According to Mordor Intelligence, the mixed reality market is “expected to register a CAGR of 47.9% over the forecast period (2020-2025)”.

The fact that devices are also becoming more affordable leads to even greater rates of adoption. For many of these apps and games, all you need is a mobile device and maybe a headset that you can slide your phone into.

Visionaries of Augmented and Mixed Reality

Scientists and storytellers have been predicting a future where we could change the world around us for a long time. Think of the Holodeck in Star Trek for example, where people could interact with solid holograms in a virtual world.

While we aren’t quite there yet, these virtual reality technologies are starting to get us close. We have treadmills and ‘centers’ with equipment that can allow us to explore virtual worlds, walking around almost like we are actually there.

As the interaction becomes more natural and we can manipulate or grab virtual objects, the possibilities of such a holodeck style experience increases.

What is Virtual Reality?

The majority of people have a clear idea about what virtual reality is. They have seen the headsets and games advertised, or played with some themselves.

However, before diving into augmented reality and mixed reality, it is important that we set the base of what virtual reality offers. Virtual reality is what led to other related technologies developing. The devices that were originally intended for virtual reality inspired other ways to change the world we see and our interaction with those virtual creations.

PCMag explains it as “VR headsets completely take over your vision to give you the impression that you’re somewhere else”.

This is an accurate description of virtual reality. As the headset blocks out the real world and replaces it with videos or virtual images. It is more than just a cinema though, as when you move your head, you can look around the virtual environment as though you were truly there.

However, as the world is virtual, it also means you need to be careful about your movements in the real world (which you can no longer see). Interaction is also currently fairly limited, often needing special digital devices such as controllers to allow you to move and interact with the digital environment.

The available tools are expanding and the experience is slowly becoming more realistic and more natural, but at the moment there is no way to interact completely naturally, such as simply running around the environment and ‘feeling’ what you touch without needing special gloves or equipment.

Adding external cameras has, however, allowed for more natural integrations with some devices. It has made it possible to add virtual hands into the environment and motion tracking does allow some movement in the space. However, the problem remains that you can’t see the real world and natural movement is fairly limited at this time.

Much of this is coming about as technologies of virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality cross devices and help to improve aspects of each approach.

What is Augmented Reality?

Augmented reality adds more to the world we see. Instead of being a virtual environment in our view, it is the real world with virtual objects added.

Augmented reality can be delivered through mobile devices and specialist headsets. An example of this at its basic stage was the game Pokemon Go, where players ran around in the real world chasing down and collecting virtual Pokemon.

The combination of virtual with the real-world environment was revolutionary for its time. It was touted as being a great achievement for bringing exercise to mobile gaming. However, not all of it was good, as there were numerous cases where people focused too much on the virtual aspect and missed dangerous real-world objects (such as holes, drains, cars, etc.).

This technology allows some level of interaction with what is added, however, this interaction is not normally in a ‘natural’ movement sense. Instead, device movement or touching the screen can allow digital objects to be affected, such as pushing a cartoon character over by touching the screen with your finger. You can’t reach into the real world behind the screen and push them over.

Augmented reality has also become popular in a lot of camera apps and augmented reality recreational apps such as Instagram, allowing cute or funny images or augmentations of people and objects seen by the camera.

These photos and even TikTok videos have become popular in recent years. They add a fun element to a normal photo or video. It allows people to play with ideas, looks, and just generally have a bit of silly fun with family and friends.

Although initially known mainly for entertainment, this technology is now being adopted to make airports more ‘user friendly’, enhance services in the medical sector, and even used by retailers to allow for promotions to be highlighted or ‘virtual advertising’ in their real-world shops.

Augmented reality is great for ‘adding’ information and assistance in real-world scenarios as well, from virtual tour guides to the Google Lens app, access to information is becoming easier and more enjoyable.

In airports, this is largely achieved by having an app that has a lot of information stored, but also reads information from wireless internet connections or nearby sensors for updates. It then presents this information to the user via a virtual ‘addition’ to what they are seeing.

This allows for ‘live’ updates and assistance for passengers. It can overlay guidance for directions or how to use things in the airport. It would also be possible to alert passengers of changes, or to notify them when they are passing something interesting, or perhaps heading too far away from their designated gate given the time until their flight. All of this helps make the user experience more fluid and less stressful, which is good for customers and the companies using augmented reality systems.

What is Mixed Reality?

Mixed reality takes augmented reality and adds both natural interaction and recognition of real-world objects. It allows people to interact with the objects, but also for the objects to react to the real environment that they are added to.

This means that instead of being able to move a character by touching the screen, you could reach out to shake their hand virtually. It also means that the same character could trip over a ball on the floor, or realistically climb up the stairs in the real world house.

The fact that the virtual objects are added in such a realistic way expands the possible uses of this kind of technology. The image isn’t simply projected into the real-world but becomes a ‘believable’ part of it.

The technology required is different from that of augmented apps. This is because the virtual glasses need to be able to accurately read and interpret the world around them. The software needs information from sensors, such as motion, distance, depth, etc. This is then translated into realistic effects of real world objects on virtual objects.

This tech is also not limited to games and entertainment either. As these devices can accurately assess the real world, it further expands the uses of augmented reality in real-world businesses and services. Providing virtualization that is responsive to and understanding the physics of the real world is a huge step towards being effective in many work environments.

As objects are digitally tethered to and able to respond to the real world accurately, it opens up more possibilities for use and provides higher levels of accuracy to generate experiences or add information for users. Mixed reality means that the real world and virtual worlds can merge, with the virtual reality elements being able to interact with and respond to real environments.

This can be as simple as having an accurate measuring app for rooms and spaces, to producing far more advanced applications. However, even a measuring app can solve many difficult real-world problems, such as accurately measuring the shaping of non-uniform objects, providing exact sizes or templates for cutting tiles, etc. This could even be connected with 3D printing to fix or develop something to perfectly fit around such structures or objects.

In the medical sector, as an example, mixed reality could assist doctors or nurses by accurately highlighting veins or guiding doctors through complex surgeries with overlaid scans or x-rays. These could also be assisted with AI, providing significant support and vital additional information to medical professionals.

It also allows interesting training scenarios, such as trainee surgeons being able to practice on virtual patients using both real and virtual medical equipment. Controllers or screens are often required to interact with virtual or augmented realities. But, with the accuracy and natural interaction of mixed reality, medical trainees could be supported and observed while practicing on completely virtual patients, organs, or even practice entire emergency scenarios.

How is Augmented Reality Different to Mixed Reality?

There are numerous differences, but the biggest noticeable aspects are device requirements and realistic interaction.

Nowadays, augmented reality is usable on most smartphones or tablets, with the added option of specialist headsets. However, to provide a mixed reality experience, more power and sensors are required. A lot of digital devices would not currently have these built-in as standard, but may in the future.

Augmented reality offers limited interactivity with the virtualized elements. This is by far the most obvious difference. The freedom to interact fully with virtual aspects in a natural and real-world way (such as by picking up an item or pushing something) makes the experience more fluid.

Virtual objects also respond to real-world objects. This not only allows for more accurate insertion of objects but also interaction. For example, a virtual remote-controlled toy car could crash into a desk or be struck by a real object.

In the case of headsets, augmented reality or mixed reality headsets have to allow people to see the real world. This is only possible in two ways. One is to feed the real world through cameras to a screen where digital objects are added. The other is to provide a translucent screen which can insert solid-looking digital objects into the real view of the current surroundings.

Which Sectors will Adopt Mixed Reality Technology?

The total impact of mixed reality on business is yet to be fully discovered. Its possible uses are so diverse, from being able to accurately measure a room or scan its shape, to tricky surgery support.

It can also be used for training – from guiding racing car drivers, to highlighting options to soldiers. This technology is one of the most adaptable new technologies and is likely to exceed virtual reality dramatically in both general adoption, its uses, and market share.

The commerce sector is jumping on this technology as well, as it is quite diverse regarding uses for advertising. The automotive industry is now able to provide people with at-home augmented reality or virtual reality examples of cars. With augmented reality or mixed reality, users could see what different cars would look like parked outside their house and virtually interact with the car images. Even cars themselves are using mixed reality, such as reversing cameras that insert directional lines or other information accurately over the real world image.

The uses are almost only limited by programmer imaginations. This is especially true as these virtual technologies start to allow real-world interactions. Instead of only being able to see the virtually projected environment, the user can fully interact with it.

This provides a more ‘natural’ use and educational environment. It makes virtual reality a powerful tool for training, as the experience of the user is much like actually performing the task in the real world. It provides a familiar merger of ‘on the job training’ and gaming. Instead of trying to remember what they read, the learner remembers an experience.

However, it isn’t just that objects can be virtualized. Virtual representations or recordings of real instructors can be included. These could be added as mixed reality ‘holograms’ in the real world or as a part of the recorded environment in a virtual space.

As devices progress and become more affordable, virtual and mixed realities are likely to become a major part of many sectors. The reason for this is:

  • Interactive training without needing a trainer
  • Increased staff safety
  • Increased productivity
  • Adaptability
  • Effective remote collaboration
  • The adaptability of using virtual ‘tools’ or ‘inputs’

Environments can be simplified by virtualizing interactive aspects Information can be intercommunication real-time from anywhere

As 5G comes in and usable robots also become cost-effective, there is also a high chance of remote working for specialists with the ability to interact with the real world via robotic devices.


Mixed reality is still a developing and relatively new technology. However, it is a technology that has great potential due to its ability to connect the online and virtual worlds with the world we live in.

Price, interactivity, and connectivity will also be a key to its long term success. What might be worth paying for a headset in specialist sectors is unlikely to be worthwhile to the average person.

However, as prices reduce and natural interaction with virtual data improves, it could be how we perform many of our current activities in the future. Imagine, for a moment, virtualized computer displays, TVs, or even exercise activities such as sports. Many of the normal technologies and equipment required today could feasibly be replaced by visualized items in mixed reality glasses or contact lenses of the future.