What are they?

First things first. What are augmented reality and virtual reality, and how do they differ from each other?

Augmented reality refers to technologies that augment views of the real world with computer-generated information.

An example of an AR device is Google Glass, smartglasses that combined a touchpad, camera and LED display. Thanks to the display, users of Google Glass can access the internet and services such as mapping and email within their field of view.

Next-generation AR devices like the recently-unveiled Microsoft HoloLens promise AR experiences that some have called magical.

Because AR can be based on digital views of the real world, more ubiquitous devices, such as smartphones and tablets, can also be used to create AR experiences.

As the name suggests, virtual reality refers to technologies that allow users to interact with virtual experiences. Unlike AR, there’s no view, direct or indirect, of the real world; everything the user sees, hears and feels is computer-generated.

Facebook’s Oculus Rift is an example of a VR device.

How they’re being used by brands today

Because smartphones and tablet devices can be used to develop AR experiences, examples of brands using augmented reality in the wild are plentiful.

In 2013, Asda turned to augmented reality to implement a Horrible Halloween Hunt in which kids using the Asda app could be guided by Sir Spook on an in-store adventure.

Also in 2013, IKEA launched an AR app for iOS and Android that enabled shoppers to simulate how IKEA furniture would look in their homes.

Because brands have been using AR for years, tips and best practices have emerged, making it easier for brands to design and implement compelling AR experiences.

VR, on the other hand, is a more nascent technology, so there are fewer real-world applications, but the numbers are growing. Tommy Hilfiger and Thomas Cook are among the brands that have experimented with VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear RV.

Boursin combined VR, bespoke CGI animation and live product sampling to create an experiential roadshow.

The potential

Thanks to increasingly capable and affordable smartphone and tablet devices, as well as mature platforms like iOS and Android, there is ample opportunity for brands of all shapes and sizes in a wide range of industries to develop refined and sophisticated AR experiences today.

VR is less accessible and probably will be for the foreseeable future, but there are numerous ways virtual reality can be applied and for brands in some industries, some of the applications could be game changers.

For example, brands in travel and hospitality, including hotel giant Marriott, travel agency Thomas Cook and airline Qantas Airways, have started experimenting with initiatives around next-gen VR headsets and in some cases, VR has the potential to revolutionise the way they sell their services.

Which technology wins? The verdict

So should brands focus on AR or VR? Not surprisingly, that depends.

Right now, AR is certainly more accessible. Opportunities to create AR experiences are abundant, and those experiences can be created for widely-available smartphone and tablet devices and easily distributed through popular app stores.

VR is generating lots of buzz, but brands will have a harder time employing it today. While devices like the Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR are now available to consumers, they’re far from mainstream.

That likely won’t change until prices for VR headsets drop and larger numbers of consumers are convinced to buy for non-gaming applications. Additionally, given the cost of creating VR experiences – professional-grade VR cameras alone can cost tens of thousands of dollars – brands without game-changing VR opportunities will probably want to wait until VR is more accessible.

If you want to learn more about VR for marketing, check out Econsultancy’s Marketer’s Guide to Virtual Reality