Media enthuse about the latest gear or games employing virtual reality or augmented reality; scholarly treatises pontificate about how virtual reality and grounded reality interact. Then there’s something called mixed reality…

It’s easy to get lost among the realities. Here’s a primer to sort out the terms and understand how each might apply to eLearning.

The real, physical world is called “grounded reality.” This article explains the “other” realities in reference and relation to grounded reality.

Immersive experiences and VR

The lure of virtual reality, or VR, is immersing learners in an environment. That environment can be created using 360-degree video, be entirely computer-generated, or combine video with computer-generated elements.

Most learners have probably encountered 360-degree video online; it shows up on real estate listings, virtual college-campus tours, and much more. While it’s possible to view 360-degree video on a computer screen, it is best viewed using a VR headset. Either way, learners can examine a complete scene—up, down, and in front of and behind the learner’s position—and get a far more complete picture than they get from looking at still photos or ordinary video. Journalists who’ve used 360-degree video in their storytelling say that news stories presented in this format have greater emotional impact than text, ordinary video, or even interactive packages because the audience has a greater sense of being on the scene. But the “scene” is still something that exists in grounded reality, and the audience can only look at it, not interact with it.

That’s where VR comes in. The environment is a digital creation, hence “virtual” reality, though it can be a digital re-creation of an actual place. Whether based on a real place or entirely fictional, it feels real to learners who are immersed in the digital world; while there, learners can interact with other avatars in the virtual world. VR immerses participants in a different world—often a world that doesn’t actually exist.According to Tobin Asher, the lab manager at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), people treat avatars—whether other “people” or fictional creatures encountered in a VR environment—as real, even if the graphics quality is not top-notch and the avatars don’t look real. Learners also behave as they would in a real space: They are unwilling to walk through a virtual wall, for example, or approach another avatar too closely.