Augmented / Virtual reality

Virtual insanity
Virtual insanity

What to watch for

After completing this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Relate the history of virtual reality and augmented reality
  • Outline various applications of VR and AR
  • Distinguish between AR and VR

If you haven’t yet tried virtual reality (VR), you will soon—and not just because you’re taking a class in the New Media Institute. In 2015, 2016 was widely heralded as the year of VR, and the prediction’s looking to be truer than anticipated.

Most pundits cited the release of the (long-awaited) Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, and other high-end VR systems like the HTC Vive as what would, in combination with existing lower-end experiences like Google Cardboard, make 2016 the year of VR. This summer’s release of Pokémon Go, however, has brought augmented reality back to the forefront of the discussion, too.

Let’s get started learning more about The Thing That This Year Is Definitely The Year Of (TTTTYIDTYO).

Required readings:

Virtual Reality 101“, CNET

(1,673 words / 9-10 minutes)

If you’re completely unfamiliar with modern VR, this article—and specifically its introduction—offers a concise definition:

Virtual reality is a computer-generated environment that lets you experience a different reality. A VR headset fits around your head and over your eyes, and visually separates you from whatever space you’re physically occupying. Images are fed to your eyes from two small lenses.

This article’s also nice because it provides a rapid introduction to the main products currently defining the VR landscape: Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR. Be sure to read briefly about each, and maybe also take a few minutes to click through and learn more about each device—videos, in particular, go a long way toward helping understand what these devices are like. (Oh, and the section on the ways you’ll be able to use VR is nice, too.)

Virtual Reality Gets Real” by Maria Konnikova

(1,531 words / 8-9 minutes)

It’s funny: this article was written late last year, and much of it already feels dated, if for no other reason than that much of what it discusses in the future tense now already occupies the past.

What doesn’t feel dated, however—and what’s the reason we’re reading it—is because it provides a nice amplification and expansion of the first article. Whereas the CNET piece focused mostly on devices, this one looks more at historical context, near-future possibilities, and future implications.

  • A good explanation of the core technological innovation of modern VR, positional tracking: “We react [to VR experiences as if they’re real], experts say, because our brains are easily fooled when what we see on a display tracks our head movements. “We have a reptilian instinct that responds as if it’s real: Don’t step off that cliff; this battle is scary,” Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, told me. “The brain hasn’t evolved to tell you it’s not real.”
  • True words: “Much of the excitement about virtual reality has come from the gaming community.”
  • “Google is testing Expeditions, a way of sending students to places like the Great Barrier Reef, where they can virtually scuba dive as part of a lesson on marine biology and ocean acidification. Similar approaches may enhance professional training.” An NMI capstone team tackled a project like this—check it out here.
  • A lot of the possibilities around telepresence in the article—virtually attending a family gathering or the office—seem hard to imagine to me, at least at present.
  • I really like the focus on bringing other senses into VR to create virtual experiences that more and more closely approximate the real world.

Virtual reality“, Wikipedia

(6,564 words / 33-37 minutes)

Another lesson, another really good Wikipedia entry. Things of note here:

  • I like that the top-level description in the entry begins with naming ambiguities. VR is really a short catch-all for a variety of distinct but related experiences.
  • Funny (but in many ways appropriate) that the term VR originated in theater scholarship.
  • I’d love to check out a Sensorama—wouldn’t you?
  • Entirely unsurprising that MIT pioneered many early VR experiences—it’s right in their wheelhouse.
  • The bits about the Power Glove probably need review for bias. 🙂
  • The largely failed VR gaming experiences of the 90s are perfectly illustrative of the larger tech principle 1 that timing is essential for a technology to take off. In hindsight, it’s easy to see that computing power and other pieces of the tech ecosystem were far too limited to create compelling experiences.
  • I’m so excited about the training possibilities of VR—read that section carefully.
  • The storytelling possibilities of VR (see the non-required reading below) are fascinating but very much in their early days.
  • The breadth and depth of the sections about representations of VR in fiction and film speak to what a compelling idea it really is—people are and have been, justifiably, truly fascinated by the concept.

Augmented reality“, Wikipedia

(7,390 words / 37-42 minutes)

Augmented reality is a really important variant of VR that it’s worth taking some time to explore.

  • “Augmented reality (AR) is a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data.”
  • “It is related to a more general concept called mediated reality, in which a view of reality is modified (possibly even diminished rather than augmented) by a computer.” The linked article on mediated reality, while not required, is really fascinating, especially the idea of intentionally diminishing a view of reality. You should 2 read it!
  • Remember Google Glass? Yeah, fascinating idea, but too early. Apparently, a team within Google (I guess now Alphabet?) is working on a non-terrible version two.
  • I really, really want to try Microsoft HoloLens—I was on (and never got off) the waitlist for a demo when I was out in San Francisco.
  • If reading the various subsections of the “Applications” sections doesn’t get you excited about AR 3, you might want to see a doctor.

Non-required readings

Pokémon Go isn’t a fad. It’s a beginning.” by Ezra Klein

If I were a betting man 4, I’d bet that even without me saying another word, this would be the most-read non-required reading of the semester.

I will, of course, say another word though, which is to say that I think this piece is pretty prescient in the case it makes for why AR will definitely be a thing:

Venture capitalist Chris Dixon has a line I like. “The next big thing will start out looking like a toy,” he says. Welp, Pokémon Go looks like a toy. Hell, it is a toy. But it’s also the first widespread, massive use case for augmented reality — even though it’s operating on smartphones that aren’t designed for AR. So what’s going to happen as the hardware improves, the software improves, and the architects learn to use these more immersive environments to addict us more fully?

If you want to see a fascinating but pretty thoroughly dystopian answer to that question, watch this video.

Oculus Rift, New Media Institute

An NMI class put together this Medium publication as a class project in the spring of 2015. Much of what’s in it is covered in other readings in this lesson, but I thought it’d be kind of fun to see work done by your peers. Chapters 1 (the bit on the murals as earliest VR), 4 (some nice thinking about VR storytelling techniques), 5 (telepresence as a primary non-gaming application), 6 (psychological issues and concerns), and 7 (thoughts on the hurdles VR must clear to achieve mass adoption) are particularly good.

Evaluating Virtual Reality in the Real World” by Michele Baruchman

An article from a different NMI class that gives special attention to the ethical concerns for using VR in journalism is definitely worth a quick read—especially if you’re a journalism major.

Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever tried VR (besides Pokémon Go)? If so, share your experiences. If not, share some questions you have about what it might be like.
  • Have you played Pokémon Go? If so, what do you like / not like about it? If not, why?
  • What do you think about VR for telepresence, like in the family gathering example in one of the readings?
  • What are your thoughts about AR versus VR?
  • What are you thoughts about the notion of diminished reality?
  • Can you think of any other examples of the principle of timing being extremely important for the adoption of a new technology?

Words on this page: 1,507

Words in required readings: 15,794

Total words in this lesson: 17,230

Words on / reading time for this page: 1,436 words / 7-8 minutes

Words in / reading time for required readings: 17,158 words / 87-98 minutes

Total words in / reading time for this lesson: 18,865 words / 94-106 minutes


  1. Can’t believe I haven’t mentioned this until now! It also really applies to innovations of many kinds.

  2. But aren’t required to!

  3. In many ways, I’m as excited if not more excited for AR than VR.

  4. My entire gambling history consists of winning ten Canadian dollars playing slots for a few minutes in a Niagara Falls casino and deciding to quit while I was ahead.