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VR vs AR: What's the difference?
What's the difference between VR and AR? Find out what they are and what these emerging technologies are being used for around the world.
Virtual reality (VR) employs computer-generated information like images and sounds to create an immersive, 3D digital simulated environment, whereas augmented reality (AR) uses digital information to enhance our experiences of reality.
The history of VR
One of the first VR technologies was created in the late 1950s and was called the Sensorama. It used 3D images on film, plus fans, odor emitters and a vibration chair to stimulate a viewer’s senses. When a person sat in the chair, placed their head inside the machine’s hood and looked at an internal screen, a 3D movie would start, complete with sound, air flow, odors and vibrations. The Sensorama never caught on because making the 3D films was too expensive at the time. In this early VR technology, we can understand what virtual reality is and some of its characteristics.
Today, VR has matured considerably, with application in gaming, shopping, medicine and skills training.
The history of AR
The term augmented reality was coined at Boeing in 1990 by researcher Tom Caudell. Boeing used manual processes for the display of schematics for factory floor workers, until Caudell and an associate conceived a system using glasses that workers could wear which would project complex wiring diagrams onto reusable boards instead of having to manually place the diagrams on plywood boards. In effect, Caudell and his colleague had created a precursor to Google Glass, albeit in a simpler form.
VR and gaming
VR works very well for gaming because it enhances various computer games by providing richer, simulated environments and realistic characters and scenarios. According to one estimate, the global VR market might hit the $27 billion mark by 2022. Another prediction pegged the VR gaming market at over $40 billion by 2024. (The overall gaming market is actually much larger than the VR portion, at well over $100 billion per year.)
AR and manufacturing
Flash forward from the 1990s, and these days Boeing does use smart glasses combined with software to better manage various forms of work during the assembly of its planes. For example, wiring production time was cut by about one-quarter using this method, which means planes can be constructed faster. Error rates have been reduced as well using the AR technology. Electrical system wiring and the installation of cabins are just two areas where the technology has been beneficial.
A factory worker builds agricultural machinery using Google Glass AR. (Photo: AGCO)
French aerospace company Airbus also employs smart glasses to reduce manufacturing time and errors. Lockheed Martin has been using this form of AR technology as well in the manufacturing of its F-35 fighter jets.
In fact, AR has been predicted to begin appearing in a number workplaces to increase productivity by improving how we interact with data.
Google Glass has been used by a solar power installation company to help workers in the field access important documents like design plans while working, instead of having to stop and use paper documents or laptop computers.
There are also other AR glasses being developed by other companies which are intended to be very lightweight and provide extra layers of information straight to human eyes in beneficial ways.
VR and shopping
If VR shopping sounds sort of weird or ‘out there’ it actually has already become somewhat mainstream. Wal-Mart, one of America’s largest employers, has begun using it to train new employees, by simulating stressful scenarios. This allows trainees to prepare themselves when they experience real-world events like holiday rushes or cleaning up the mess in aisle 7.
The e-commerce giant Alibaba released VR shopping in China which allows millions of users to browse stores from home.
Alibaba's virtual shopping experience. (Image: Alibaba)
VR has been studied to see if it might help companies better understand how context influences consumer decision-making. For example, researchers provided adults with photographs of a beach and instructed them to imagine they were there and presented with beverage choices. Later they provided them with VR experiences of a beach and presented them with the same beverage choices. The VR experiences resulted in more consumer engagement and influenced their beverage choices more. So, VR might be used to create contextual shopping experiences which influence purchase decisions. (The ethics of this strategy are an issue that wasn’t examined by the study.)
VR and medicine
VR has also been used for medical training, specifically for surgical simulations. By employing technology used for many years in flight simulations and applying it to neurology, 3D virtual brain surgeries can be performed. Medical students and doctors can practice hundreds of times or more using VR so they are well-prepared before operating on live humans. The images used in the system for training can be from former patients so they are as realistic and accurate as possible. Similar systems are also being evaluated for heart surgery and spinal surgery.
Screenshot from a VR medical training session. (Credit: Clyde DeSouza on YouTube)
Because VR is a digital, immersive environment it can be used in very creative ways to try to solve human problems, like soothing autistic children and helping them learn to better manage the visual and auditory stimuli they experience so they can regulate their emotions.
VR can potentially also be used to reduce the suffering of burn patients because distracting the human brain is a powerful way to relieve pain. Early research has indicated that the distraction resulting from the use of VR might be more effective than morphine for pain relief. Considering that tens of millions of people around the world suffer from chronic pain the potential of VR to reduce suffering is very intriguing.
Researchers at Duke University tested VR physiotherapy on paraplegics. By simulating moving through a stadium using a soccer player avatar the research subjects activated parts of their brains and trained them. As a result, they regained some movement in their real limbs.
Because of VR’s ability to simulate environments, the technology has also demonstrated some promise for helping individuals with PTSD recover. One form of PTSD therapy involves exposing the patient to sensory information that was present during the initial trauma. These sensory experiences—including some scenes depicting conflict—can be re-created using VR so the patient can experience them in small ‘doses’ virtually and begin to acclimate to them.
AR and medicine
Researchers and clinicians are exploring how AR might be used to improve surgical outcomes, reduce the invasiveness of procedures and decrease surgery times. Another potential application is the use of supplemental visual information right next to, or above a surgical site. This visual layer could display information such as the patient’s vital signs or data about the particular patient’s condition or anatomy. With essential information displayed right next to the site where the surgeon is working there would be no need to look away to computer monitors several feet or more away.
Concept illustration of AR transparent display telementoring approach: overall view of system at trainee surgeon site (left), and trainee view (right). (Credit: Daniel Anderson et al.)
While operating room conditions are often the best for many procedures there are still some which are performed elsewhere, such as in a patient’s room. In these scenarios, the same high level of support is unavailable, but using AR could improve the surgical process by consolidating
information from various patient monitors into one view. Furthermore, some patient monitoring and data display systems are completely separate from one another. Integrating them could free up much-needed physical space in patient rooms, streamlining the environment to be less consumed by electrical cords and blinking monitors and more conducive to rest and healing.
VR and education
VR has been used for educational purposes like Google Expedition which allows users to have immersive 3D experiences of historical or cultural significance. Over one million students have taken these virtual field trips.
A Stanford University Business Innovation certificate program is partially delivered using VR, and VR chat has been used at the University of British Columbia to deliver lectures. Some colleges and universities have used VR to create online campus tours. The implications for enhancing remote or long-distance learning are enormous.
At a more granular level, there has been a surge in the number of educational apps and some of them have proven to be very popular with students in classrooms and free-range curious folks. Star Chart is a VR app for your phone that, when combined with hardware—like the inexpensive $15 Google Cardboard viewer—lets you wander our solar system in detail, see real-time views, and get up close to 88 constellations. Google’s Tilt Brush is another incredible app that lets you paint in 3D space using VR. Ever wondered what it’s like to step inside an artwork? Watch this Tilt Brush demo video to give you an idea of how this app can blow your creativity up.
AR in education
AR apps have already been used in educational settings for a variety of enhancements, like turning physical textbooks into pop-up books by adding 3D graphics to them, or allowing students to receive information when they point a tablet at particular objects.
Flash cards are a very old learning aid, but AR apps have been created that add 3D digital images to them. A flash card depicts, say, a 2D animal and the AR app inserts 3D digital images that correspond to it. The 3D digital images can move and they are linked to audio files which play the animal’s vocalizations. The AR sensory overlays add extra visual and sound information for learners which helps them identify and recall the animal content. The AR content also includes the digital representation of the foods in the animal diets which enhances the learning experience.
Within the AR world, there are scores of apps and software programs. The AR game Pokémon Go is probably the one we have all heard of, but there are many, many more and new ones are being created continually. Google Sky Map is an Android AR app that turns your phone into a planetarium. Just point it up and Sky Map will reveal the location of stars, planets, beautiful nebulae and other celestial bodies. For iOS users, Monster Park brings the world of dinosaurs to life, crashing around very close to you. You can also dissect frogs on Froggipedia, which saves frogs lives and is a gift to squeamish high school students everywhere.
The variety of AR apps on offer is already enormous, so start Googling for your interests or head to YouTube for visual demonstrations that can give you a taste of what augmented reality could look like for you.
What’s in store for the future?
A market research report published in 2017 predicted that the size of the AR market could reach $133 billion by 2021, which trumps VR’s market size.
VR and AR both have benefits and each is suitable for different purposes. One thing they have in common is anticipated growth—it is expected that they will continue to develop extensively and increasingly be adopted to solve various problems in business, healthcare, education and workplaces. And also let us have a whole lot of fun.
"Deepfakes" and "cheap fakes" are becoming strikingly convincing — even ones generated on freely available apps.
- A writer named Magdalene Visaggio recently used FaceApp and Airbrush to generate convincing portraits of early U.S. presidents.
- "Deepfake" technology has improved drastically in recent years, and some countries are already experiencing how it can weaponized for political purposes.
- It's currently unknown whether it'll be possible to develop technology that can quickly and accurately determine whether a given video is real or fake.
After former U.S. President William Henry Harrison delivered his inaugural speech on March 4, 1841, he posed for a daguerreotype, the first widely available photographic technology. It became the first photo taken of a sitting American president.
As for the eight presidents before Harrison, history can see them only through artistic renderings. (The exception is a handful of surviving daguerreotypes of John Quincy Adams, taken after he left office. In his diary, Adams described them as "hideous" and "too true to the original.")
But a recent project offers a glimpse of what early presidents might've looked like if photographed through modern cameras. Using FaceApp and Airbrush, Magdalene Visaggio, author of books such as "Eternity Girl" and "Kim & Kim," generated a collection of convincing portraits of the nation's first presidents, from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant.
Modern Presidents George Washington https://t.co/CURJQB0kap— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611952243.0
What might be surprising is that Visaggio was able to generate the images without a background in graphic design, using freely available tools. She wrote on Twitter:
"A lot of people think I'm a digital artist or whatever, so let me clarify how I work. Everything you see here is done in Faceapp+Airbrush on my phone. On the outside, each takes between 15-30 mins. Washington was a pretty simple one-and-done replacement."
Ulysses S Grant https://t.co/L1IGXLI3Vl— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611959480.0
"Other than that? I am not a visual artist in any sense, just a hobbyist using AI tools see what she can make. I'm actually a professional comics writer."
Did another pass at Lincoln. https://t.co/PdT4QVpMbn— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611973947.0
Of course, Visaggio isn't the first person to create deepfakes (or "cheap fakes") of politicians.
In 2017, many people got their first glimpse of the technology through a video depicting former President Barack Obama warning: "We're entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time." The video quickly reveals itself to be fake, with comedian Jordan Peele speaking for the computer-generated Obama.
While deepfakes haven't yet caused significant chaos in the U.S., incidents in other nations may offer clues of what's to come.
The future of deepfakes
In 2018, Gabon's president Ali Bongo had been out of the country for months receiving medical treatment. After Bongo hadn't been seen in public for months, rumors began swirling about his condition. Some suggested Bongo might even be dead. In response, Bongo's administration released a video that seemed to show the president addressing the nation.
But the video is strange, appearing choppy and blurry in parts. After political opponents declared the video to be a deepfake, Gabon's military attempted an unsuccessful coup. What's striking about the story is that, to this day, experts in the field of deepfakes can't conclusively verify whether the video was real.
The uncertainty and confusion generated by deepfakes poses a "global problem," according to a 2020 report from The Brookings Institution. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense released some of the first tools able to successfully detect deepfake videos. The problem, however, is that deepfake technology keeps improving, meaning forensic approaches may forever be one step behind the most sophisticated forms of deepfakes.
As the 2020 report noted, even if the private sector or governments create technology to identify deepfakes, they will:
"...operate more slowly than the generation of these fakes, allowing false representations to dominate the media landscape for days or even weeks. "A lie can go halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on," warns David Doermann, the director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute at the University of Buffalo. And if defensive methods yield results short of certainty, as many will, technology companies will be hesitant to label the likely misrepresentations as fakes."
Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.
- People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
- They left behind a vast network of corridors and galleries, since reused for many purposes — most famously, the Catacombs.
- Soon, the ancient labyrinth may find a new lease of life, providing a sustainable form of air conditioning.
Ancient mining areas below Paris for limestone (red) and gypsum (green).Credit: Émile Gérards (1859–1920) / Public domain
"If you're brave enough to try, you might be able to catch a train from UnLondon to Parisn't, or No York, or Helsunki, or Lost Angeles, or Sans Francisco, or Hong Gone, or Romeless."
China Miéville's fantasy novel Un Lun Dun is set in an eerie mirror version of London. In it, he hints that other cities have similar doubles. On the list that he offhandedly rattles off, Paris stands out. Because the City of Light really does have a twisted sister. Below Paris Overground is Paris Underground, the City of Darkness.
Most people will have heard of the Catacombs of Paris: subterranean charnel houses for the bones of around six million dead Parisians. They are one of the French capital's most famous tourist attractions – and undoubtedly its grisliest.
But they constitute only a small fragment of what the locals themselves call les carrières de Paris ("the mines of Paris"), a collection of tunnels and galleries up to 300 km (185 miles) long, most of which are off-limits to the public, yet eagerly explored by so-called cataphiles.
The Grand Réseau Sud ("Great Southern Network") takes up around 200 km beneath the 5th, 6th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements (administrative districts), all south of the river Seine. Smaller networks run beneath the 12th, 13th, and 16th arrondissements. How did they get there?
Paris stone and plaster of Paris
It all starts with geology. Sediments left behind by ancient seas created large deposits of limestone in the south of the city, mostly south of the Seine; and gypsum in the north, particularly in the hills of Montmartre and Ménilmontant. Highly sought after as building materials, both have been mined since Roman times.
The limestone is also known as Lutetian limestone (Lutetia is the Latin name for ancient Paris) or simply "Paris stone." It has been used for many famous Paris landmarks, including the Louvre and the grand buildings erected during Georges-Eugène Haussmann's large-scale remodelling of the city in the mid-19th century. The stone's warm, yellowish color provides visual unity and a bright elegance to the city.
The fine-powdered gypsum of northern Paris, used for making quick-setting plaster, was so famed for its quality that "plaster of Paris" is still used as a term of distinction. However, as gypsum is very soluble in water, the underground cavities left by its extraction were extremely vulnerable to collapse.
Like living on top of a rotting tooth: subsidence starts far below the surface, but it can destroy your house.Credit : Delavanne Avocats
In previous centuries, a road would occasionally open up to swallow a chariot, or even a whole house would disappear down a sinkhole. In 1778, a catastrophic subsidence in Ménilmontant killed seven. That's why the Montmartre gypsum quarries were dynamited rather than just left as they were. The remaining gypsum caves were to be filled up with concrete.
The official body governing Paris down below is the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC), founded in the late 1770s by King Louis XVI. The IGC was tasked with mapping and, where needed, propping up the current and ancient (and sometimes forgotten) mining corridors and galleries hiding beneath Paris.
A delightful hiding place
Also around that time, the dead of Paris were getting in the way of the living. At the end of the 18th century, their final destination consisted of about 200 small cemeteries, scattered throughout the city — all bursting at the seams, so to speak. There was no room to bury the newly dead, and the previously departed were fouling up both the water and air around their respective churchyards.
Something radical had to happen. And it did. From 1785 until 1814, the smaller cemeteries were emptied of their bones, which were transported with full funerary pomp to their final resting place in the ancient limestone quarries at Tombe-Issoire. Three large and modern cemeteries were opened to receive the remains of subsequent generations of Parisians: Montparnasse, Père-Lachaise, and Passy.
The six million dead Parisians in the Catacombs, from all corners of the capital and across many centuries, together form the world's largest necropolis — their now anonymized skulls and bones methodically stacked, occasionally into whimsical patterns. The Catacombs are fashioned into a memorial to the brevity of life. The message above the entrance reads: Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort. ("Halt! This is the empire of Death.")
That has not stopped the Catacombs, accessible via a side door to a classicist building on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, making just about every Top 20 list of things to see in Paris.
An underground economy
However, while the Catacombs certainly are the most famous part of the centuries-old network beneath Paris, and in non-pandemic times draw thousands of tourists each day, they constitute just 1.7 km (1 mile) of the 300-km (185-mile) tunneling total.
Subterranean Paris wasn't just used for mining and storing dead people. In the 17th century, Carthusian monks converted the ancient quarries under their monastery into distilleries for the green or yellow liqueur that still carries their name, chartreuse.
Because the mines generally keep a constant cool temperature of around 15° C (60° F), they were also ideal for brewing beer, as happened on a large scale from the end of the 17th century until well into the 20th century. Several caves were dug especially for establishing breweries, and not just because of the ambient temperature: going underground allowed brewers to remain close to their customers without having to pay a premium for real estate up top.
Overview of the Paris Catacombs.Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain.
At the end of the 19th century, the underground breweries of the 14th arrondissement alone produced more than a million hectoliters (22 million gallons) per year. One of the most famous of Paris' underground breweries, Dumesnil, stayed in operation until the late 1960s.
In that decade, the network of corridors and galleries south of the Seine, long since abandoned by miners, became the unofficial playground for the young people of Paris. They explored the fantastical world beneath their feet, in some cases via entry points located in their very schools. Fascinated, these cataphiles ("catacomb lovers") read up on old books, explored the subterranean labyrinth, and drew up schematics that were passed around among fellow initiates as reverently as treasure maps.
As Robert Macfarlane writes in Underland, Paris-beneath-their-feet became "a place where people might slip into different identities, assume new ways of being and relating, become fluid and wild in ways that are constrained on the surface."
Some larger caves turned into notorious party zones: a 7-meter-tall gallery below the Val-de-Grâce hospital is widely known as "Salle Z." Over the last few decades, various other locations in subterranean Paris have hosted jazz and rock concerts and rave parties — like no other city, Paris really has an "underground music scene."
Hokusai's Great Wave as the backdrop to the "beach" under Paris.Credit: Reddit
Cataphiles vs. cataphobes
With popularity came increased reports of nuisance and crime — the tunnels provided easy access to telephone cables, which were stolen for the resale value of their copper.
The general public's "discovery" of the underground network led the city of Paris to officially interdict all access by non-authorized persons. That decree dates back to 1955, but the "underground police" have an understanding with seasoned cataphiles. Their main targets are so-called tourists, who by their lack of knowledge expose themselves to risk of injuries or worse, and degrade their surroundings, often leaving loads of litter in their wake.
The understanding does not extend to the IGC. Unlike in the 19th century, when weak cavities were shored up by purpose-built pillars, the policy now is to inject concrete to fill up endangered spaces — thus progressively blocking off parts of the network. That procedure has also been used to separate the Catacombs to prevent "infiltration" of the site by cataphiles.
Many subterranean streets have their own names, signs and all. This is the Rue des Bourguignons (Street of the Burgundians) below the Champs des Capucins (Capuchin Field), neither of which exists on the surface.Credit: Jean-François Gornet via Wikimedia and licensed under
The cataphiles, however, are fighting back. In a game of cat and mouse with the authorities, they are reopening blocked passages and creating chatières ("cat flaps") through which they can squeeze into chambers no longer accessible via other underground corridors.
Catacomb climate control
Alone against the unstoppable tide of concrete, the amateurs of Underground Paris would be helpless. But the fight against climate change may turn the subterranean labyrinths from a liability into an asset — and the City of Paris into an ally.
The UN's 2015 Climate Plan — concluded in Paris, by the way — requires the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050. And Paris itself wants to be Europe's greenest city by 2030. More sustainable climate control of our living spaces would be a great help toward both targets. A lot of energy is spent heating houses in winter and cooling them in summer.
This is where the constant temperature of the Parisian tunnels comes in. It's not just good for brewing beer; it's a source of geothermal energy, says Fieldwork, an architectural firm based in Paris. It can be used to temper temperatures, helping to cool houses in summer and warming them in winter.
One catch for the cataphiles: it also works when the underground cavities are filled up with concrete. So perhaps one day, Paris Underground, fully filled up with concrete, will completely fall off the map, reducing the city's formerly real doppelgänger into an air conditioning unit.
Cool in summer, warm in winter: Paris Underground could become Paris A/C.Credit: Fieldwork
Strange Maps #1083
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meconium contains a wealth of information.
- A new study finds that the contents of an infants' first stool, known as meconium, can predict if they'll develop allergies with a high degree of accuracy.
- A metabolically diverse meconium, which indicates the initial food source for the gut microbiota, is associated with fewer allergies.
- The research hints at possible early interventions to prevent or treat allergies just after birth.
The prevalence of allergies arising in childhood has increased over the last 50 years, with 30 percent of the human population now having some kind of atopic disease such as eczema, food allergies, or asthma. The cause of this increase is still subject to debate, though it has been associated with a number of factors, including changes to the gut microbiomes of infants.
A new study by Canadian researchers published in Cell Reports Medicine may shed further light on how these allergies develop in children by examining the contents of their first diaper.
The things you do for science
The research team examined the first stool of 100 infants from the CHILD Cohort Study. The first stool of an infant is a thick, green, horrid-looking substance called meconium. It consists of various things that the infant ingests during the second half of gestation. Additionally, it provides not only a snapshot of what the infant was exposed to during that time, but it also reveals what the food sources will be for the initial gut bacteria that colonize the baby's digestive tract.
The content of the meconium was examined and found to contain such varied elements as amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, and myriad other substances.
A graph of the comparative, summed abundance of different elements in a metabolic pathway after scaling to median abundance of each metabolite. The blue figures are those children without atopy, the yellow ones show the data for those with an atopic condition. Petersen et al.
The authors fed this information into an algorithm that used this data, along with the identities of the bacteria present as well as the baby's overall health, to predict which infants would go on to develop allergies within one year. The algorithm got it right 76 percent of the time.
A way to prevent childhood allergies?
Infants whose meconium had a less diverse metabolic niche the initial microbes to settle in the gut were at the highest risk of developing allergies a year later. Many of these elements were associated with the presence or absence of different bacterial groups in the digestive system of the child, which play an increasingly appreciated role in our overall health and development. The findings were summarized by senior co-author Dr. Brett Finlay:
"Our analysis revealed that newborns who developed allergic sensitization by one year of age had significantly less 'rich' meconium at birth, compared to those who didn't develop allergic sensitization."
The findings could be used to help understand how allergies form and even how to prevent them. Co-author Dr. Stuart Turvey commented on this possibility:
"We know that children with allergies are at the highest risk of also developing asthma. Now we have an opportunity to identify at-risk infants who could benefit from early interventions before they even begin to show signs and symptoms of allergies or asthma later in life."
A model for early childhood allergies
Petersen et al.
As shown above, the authors constructed a model of how they believe metabolites and bacterial diversity help prevent allergies. Increased diversity of metabolic products in the meconium encourage the development of "healthy" families of bacteria, like Peptostreptococcaceae, which in turn promote the development of a healthy and diverse gut microbiome. Ultimately, such diversity decreases the likelihood that a child will develop allergies.