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Virtual Reality Vs. Augmented Reality: Should We Believe The Hype?


If reality is getting you down, there are a growing number of alternatives. High-end virtual reality headsets start hitting the market later this month.


Or if you don't want to forgo real life altogether, you might try something called augmented reality. It gives you a little more reality with your unreality.

SIEGEL: If you have no idea what we're talking about, you're not alone. NPR's Laura Sydell explains from the South by Southwest conference in Austin.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: There are dozens of ways to leave reality behind this year in Austin that don't include imbibing anything. At a big ballroom in the Hilton Hotel, South by Southwest attendees line up to try a variety of virtual reality experiences. All around me here are people with big, thick goggles on moving their heads around while smiling, laughing, sighing, gasping. Virtual-reality or VR headsets set you right in the center of an often eerily real-looking 3-D world. Here I am thinking I'm sitting on a New York rooftop watching a modern dancer.

She's smiling at you. She's up close right where your nose is. It is the strangest experience to feel like somebody is really looking you in the eye while they're dancing. It's incredibly seductive.

The immersive quality of virtual reality has got filmmakers, musicians, game designers, marketing firms intrigued with its possibilities. Hayley Pappas is with RYOT, who chooses all kinds of media to get people engaged in charities and causes.

HAYLEY PAPPAS: It's perhaps one of the only times when we're not distracted, where you're not looking at your phone or clicking on other tabs. You're literally consumed with the story that's being told around you.

SYDELL: I can promise you it's really hard to look at your phone while you're wearing VR goggles. But you could check your phone when wearing augmented reality glasses.

TRODE SANDBERG: Augmented reality just adds things to the world you're already seeing and experiencing.

SYDELL: It adds things, says Trode Sandberg (ph) part of a team at Sony that's working on an augmented reality headset. He takes out what looks almost like a pair of regular glasses with clear lenses that I can see through.

I'd love to try it. Could I give it a shot? Yeah, let's...

Sandberg has the glasses attached to his phone, and he's able to send me a little game. I see green ghosts flying around the room.

Oh, so I'm supposed to, like - look at the...

SANDBERG: Look at the ghost...


SANDBERG: ...On the top.

SYDELL: ...I see. Yeah, but I am here in the world.

SANDBERG: You're still in the real world.

SYDELL: Augmented reality isn't really going to find its first audience among gamers, who love VR. Augmented reality is good in situations where you need to see the real world, say, emergency responders who must do a sonogram on someone at a crash site.

SANDBERG: So they would still have an ultrasound scanner in their hand, but the image would be in front of their eyes while they are still looking at what they're doing with their hands.

SYDELL: Augmented reality glasses are already being used by companies like Lockheed, which has engineers put them on to see the names of engine parts while they work. But if augmented reality glasses sound vaguely familiar, there could be a reason.


ELLA JONES: Hold on a second. What the [expletive] have you all got on your faces?


JONES: Google what?


SYDELL: That's part of a spoof from "The Daily Show" with reporter Jason Jones. Google Glass was a version of augmented reality that spooked consumers because it could surreptitiously take pictures. But Sony, Microsoft, Google and others are still at work on it. And last year, investors poured 800 million into the augmented reality company Magic Leap. But most experts think it's likely to be five to 10 years before augmented reality will reach regular consumers. Though virtual reality glasses will hit the market this year, they're likely to be expensive, which means most of us will be staying put in the real world for now. Laura Sydell, NPR news, Austin, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.