Augmented Reality vs Virtual Reality: The Developer’s Dilemma

September 02 2021

augmented realitydevelopmentvirtual reality

Augmented reality vs virtual reality is a battle that many new and aspiring software developers face today in the real world.

Advances in these immersive and interactive technologies have not gone unnoticed. As they go mainstream, more people want to get a job working with AR and VR.

The question is:

Which is the best choice?

In this article, we'll find out by looking at use cases for both technologies. We'll also show you what you need to consider to land your dream job in either medium.

Okay, it's time to get into VR vs AR.

What is Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is a computer technology that creates a simulated environment where users can interact with three-dimensional (3D) space. VR hardware shuts off the outside world, and the technology simulates human senses and provides haptic-feedback to immerse people in a completely artificial environment.

For years, VR was little more than a gimmick in movies or video games. Today, VR is finding its place as an integral aspect of many industries.


The Volvo Reality app allows you to take the XC90 SUV for a test drive, and Walmart uses a VR training app to help managers learn in a stress-free environment. And then, of course, there are VR games, which is a multi-billion dollar marketplace.

How to Start Developing in Virtual Reality

Here are four fundamental areas to explore when you want to create a VR project:

  1. VR hardware
  2. Design and prototype tools
  3. Game engines
  4. Platforms and Software Development Kits (SDKs)

1. VR Hardware

To develop VR (or AR) you will need a performance hardware that is capable of running advanced graphics and complex computations. If you don't have a computer or a laptop, check our guide on VR hardware.

Secondly, you will need a VR device. There's a variety of VR headsets out there with different performances and price points. If you want to create a believable, engaging, virtual world, here are the best VR devices to work with now:

  1. Oculus Rift - Oculus is the undisputed VR leader, and the Rift is their crown jewel. The tetherless headset uses Oculus Link to connect to computers, and the device utilizes hand tracking for a more intuitive VR experience.
  2. Oculus Quest 2 - A cost-effective alternative to the Rift. The Quest is the first model with standalone six degrees of freedom (6DOF).
  3. HTC Vive - The rival to Oculus, boasting room-scale technology that enables you to move around and use motion-tracked handheld controllers to interact with the 3D virtual environment.
  4. Valve Index — Index has a superior refresh rate and better precision thank Oculus and Vive however, the performance does reflect on the price tag.
  5. HP Reverb G2 — HP's Reverb G2 was the latest arrival in the VR headset marketplace and based on performance it offers one of the best value for your money. You can also choose an enterprise Omnicept edition which tracks your heartbeat and pupillary response among other things.
  6. Google Cardboard - A budget-friendly, cardboard frame that you can put your smartphone in for easy VR experiences. The cardboard is more of a gimmick but it's a good learning tool if you're looking to create something fast.
  7. Samsung GearVR / Google Daydream / Oculus Go - These devices are more like mobile accessories that uses your phone's capabilities for main hardware. Unfortunately their lack of computational power and use puts it only slightly above Google Cardboard. They were mainly used for 360-video apps that never saw a popularity due to lack of immersive experience.  All companies stopped the production and support for this kind of devices.

Other high-end headset manufactures such as Varjo and Pimax have top-spec headset with real-life or over human-eye high resolution. With prices starting at $3,000 and more, these headsets are mostly reserved for enterprise business solutions.

For an in-depth comparison of the two most popular virtual reality headset manufacturers check out the HTC vs Oculus article.

2. Design and prototype tools

You can use pen and paper to get basic ideas out of your head, but if you’re serious, you should start playing around with some professional digital tools, like these:

  1. Sketch or Figma - design user flows and mobile interface screens. Includes a plug-in to transform your Sketches to a 360-degree view.
  2. Blender - create custom 3D models to import to your game engine. Includes free online tutorials.
  3. 3ds Max and Maya - The gold standard in the industry. Use these for modeling, sculpting, animation, lighting, and visual effects. Beware, they come with high price tags and steep learning curves.
  4. Cinema 4D - A user-friendly alternative to Maya, used by many individual artists and small teams.
  5. A-Frame - An open-source Mozilla project for creating VR experiences in HTML. Compatible with Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR, and Google Daydream.

These design-oriented applications are powerful tools to get you prototype, envision and plan out possible user workflows and experiences. XR Design is an important if not crucial process for developing AR or VR products. Without the basic understanding of your users and their behaviors, it's almost impossible to build an experience that is enjoyable from the first iteration.

3. Game engines

The game engine is crucial, as it comprises the essential framework and software development kits (SDKs) required to develop VR applications for a computer or mobile device.

Here are the top contenders:

  1. Unity - The king of VR game engines, and preferred choice of 45% of developers. This engine uses C# to write commands, and it supports all major VR devices and formats, including 3D Max, Maya, and Cinema4D.
  2. Unreal Engine - The closest rival to Unity supports most platforms, including HoloLens 2, Magic Leap, macOS, Windows, iOS, and Android. Unreal uses the more difficult C++, but many claim it offers more realistic visuals.
  3. CryEngine - A free tool with incredible weather and water effects, like volumetric fog, ocean physics, and full 3D cloud rendering. CryEngine uses C++, but only supports Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and OSVR.

The market leaders of game engines are undoubtedly Unreal and Unity. In practice they are neck and neck. If you're choosing between one of them, read the Unreal vs Unity comparison guide.

4. Platforms and Software Development Kits (SDKs)

An SDK is a plug-in with engine- and platform-specific assets, content, and special design techniques that effectively shape the overall native VR experience.

Here are some of the best SDKs for VR development:

  1. Oculus SDK is a developer software that includes various engine-specific kits, assets, samples, and audio packages that you can use to build your VR apps. Best for Oculus Rift.
  2. SteamVR SDK gives access to controllers, models, and enables content preview in Unity play mode. Best option for HTC Vive.
  3. Oculus Mobile SDK has all the tools and libraries for C/C++ development for Samsung GearVR and Oculus. Best option for GearVR.
  4. Google VR SDK is a collection of specific dev kits, tools, APIs, and design frameworks. Best option for Google Cardboard and Google Daydream headset.

Looking to build your first virtual reality app? Try building your first VR Escape Room.

What is Augmented Reality?

Augmented reality is a technology that changes the perception of the physical world to make it more interactive. AR achieves this by superimposing digital information onto a view of the real-world environment.

AR is best suited to enterprise tooling. In manufacturing, workers can use AR smart glasses to access text, stats, and graphical representations while working on a task.


While VR is better for gaming, AR is the technology behind the crazy success of Pokémon Go, which Forbes once called ‘the world’s most important game.

How to Start Developing in Augmented Reality

There are several critical steps involved to start developing AR experiences:

  1. AR Hardware
  2. Get Unity
  3. Install development applications
  4. SDKs

1. AR Hardware

When you consider the hardware between augmented reality vs virtual reality, you’ll discover that AR medium offers substantially less options for development than VR. But here's the thing - your mobile phone is already powerful enough to run mobile AR applications.

Do you remember mega-successful Pokemon Go AR game? Everyone went crazy when it was released back in 2016. You can try and recreate the app by yourself.

A lot of early XR developers start developing for AR since most of the modern smartphones offer the AR feature. You only need phone's camera and one of the free version of 3d game engines. To make your first AR apps try recreating an augmented version of your T-shirt and you're blast through the fear before AR technology :).

As for AR headsets, there are few that offer an open SDK and are available for development.

  1. Microsoft HoloLens 2 - A holographic computer in a headset that offers a hands-free experience where you use voice and hand gestures to interact with holograms.
  2. Google Glass 2 - An enterprise tool built on Android, which primarily targets the manufacturing, medical, and construction markets.
  3. Magic Leapthe first ground-breaking AR device fell from the popularity throughout the years but it is still very much alive especially in the enterprise solutions sector.

You'll also find a lot of augmented reality glasses devices on the market however, most of them have closed software. The others, such as Snap's Spectacles offer dedicated content production software such as Lens Studio.

2. Get Unity

While you can use Unreal or another game engine, there’s little doubt that Unity is the way to go for augmented reality developers. Not only is it the best for the medium, but it has free documentation, tutorials, and live training.

3. Install development applications

Download these applications before you start:
HoloLens Emulator - With this, you can run Windows Holographic without the HoloLens device. You also need to get Hyper-V for this to work.
Visual Studio - An Integrated Development Environment where you write code and run the HoloLens Emulator. Install both Visual Studio 2015 with Update 3 and Visual Studio 2017, or it won't work correctly.

4. SDKs

Here are a few SDKs for developing in AR:

  1. HoloToolkit - A collection of scripts and components to accelerate project development on the HoloLens. Check this GitHub guide for installation instructions and toolkit tips.
  2. Vuforia - Use this to create Holographic applications that can recognize objects in the environment.
  3. ARKit - Apple tools to help developers create AR applications for iOS devices.
    You can learn more from Circuit Stream’s comparison guide for augmented reality SDKs.

You can learn more from Circuit Stream’s comparison guide for augmented reality SDKs.

Augmented Reality vs Virtual Reality: What to Choose?

Augmented reality and virtual reality offer two very unique paths for developers. Augmented reality changes our perception of the real world, and virtual reality transports you to an entirely different world.

Augmented reality is the best choice for developers if you want to create apps and experiences for:

  • Manufacturing, construction, or design - If you want to build an enterprise-focused tool for factory workers, AR is the way to go.
  • Game-based education - AR makes it possible to create a digital learning narrative and embed contextually relevant information.
  • Retail - People naturally want to try things on when shopping for clothes or makeup. AR has already been adopted by furniture, beauty, and clothes brands.

Virtual reality is the best choice for developers if you want to create apps and experiences for:

  • Computer games. Virtual reality may or may not be the future of gaming. What's not in doubt is its potential, with global revenue for VR games in 2020 soaring to $22.9B. VR is the best choice for gaming now. Period.
  • Military, manufacturing or medical training. Whether it's a battlefield simulation or brain surgery, the immersive technology gives people a learning platform to develop their skills and confidence, without any risks.
  • Mental health. VR can create powerful simulations of scenarios that may pose psychological difficulties for some people. Research suggests it can help with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and paranoia.
  • E-Commerce — Snap's Global Consumer Report is showing big growth in AR use for retail and e-commerce.

Augmented Reality vs Virtual Reality: You Can’t Lose

The rise of AR and VR has been a slow burn, but now the technologies have finally moved beyond gaming and entertainment to show promise in many industries.

Now is the time to get involved. By starting small, you can build your knowledge and skills with the essential software and grow your developer portfolio.

When it comes to deciding between augmented reality vs virtual reality, you can't lose.

If you're looking to dip your toes and start from the beginning, check one of our numerous on-demand and live AR or VR workshops.

Interested in XR Unity development or learning about AR and VR?

Take a look at our course content and syllabus.

Download the XR Development with Unity Syllabus

REVIEWED BY

Dejan Gajsek

Head of Marketing

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