What is augmented reality?

Augmented reality brings VR to the real world in all sorts of exciting ways

what is augmented reality augmentedreality01

As digital technology becomes more integrated with our everyday lives, the search is on to find more intuitive ways to interact with it. Augmented reality is a very real attempt to achieve such a system, bringing interactive video, social networking, education, training, and gaming into the real world in ways that were purely the realm of science fiction in decades past.

What is augmented reality? It’s a blending of the real and virtual worlds and could one day become the default way that we interact with a variety of digital services.

More than just a HUD

As with many advanced technologies, augmented reality was first developed for military use. It debuted in the early 1990s with the U.S. Air Force’s virtual fixtures, although head-up displays (HUD) and headset designs had been conceived and developed for almost a century beforehand. These sorts of HUDs that provide information to the headset wearer in the form of digital readouts or gauges have long been a staple of science fiction movies and games, but that was only a hint of what augmented reality could offer a far broader audience.

In much the same manner as virtual reality, early implementations of augmented reality suffered from a lack of raw computing power to render the visuals required for realistic digital graphics, as well as the small-screen technology needed to display it comfortably. The fast-paced development of smartphones since the turn of the century and the continual shrinking and performance enhancements of graphics technology mean that the past decade has seen incredible advancements in augmented reality technology too.

From QR Codes to Pokémon Go

best augmented-reality apps

One of the first ways that many people interacted with augmented reality was by pointing their smartphone at a QR code on a table. Augmented reality applications can translate that particular coded image into a virtual item on the screen. Some camera apps even include the option to add virtual elements to a photo, along with some measure of 3D sensing that allows them to move around the picture as if they were part of the scene.

Augmented reality truly hit the mainstream in 2016, however, with the launch of Pokémon Go. The clever combination of a nostalgic franchise with real-world location tracking and the ability to “see” those pocket monsters jumping around on a real street or park bench made for an intoxicating and popular gaming fad that still continues — albeit with far fewer players — to this day.

Augmented reality toy lines like Mekamon and Anki Overdrive combine elements of physical robotics and traditional toys with digital interactions via a smartphone to enhance gameplay in new and exciting ways. Educational applications like BBC Civilisations and Mondly help you learn about the world or a new language with interactive augmented reality elements, all displayed through your smartphone screen.

But smartphone AR is just the tip of the augmented reality iceberg. Full head-mounted displays hint at a future where games, training simulations, YouTube videos, conference calls, and more can all be virtually displayed right in front of our eyes, without losing sight of the real world, making AR both immersive and intuitive at once.

Learning, playing, and living in headsets

hololens 2 news roundup dynamics 365 guides holographic training 4 1920x1080
Microsoft

Google Glass was arguably the first augmented reality headset to capture the public’s imagination, but it didn’t necessarily do so in a positive light. The technology was ultimately a little underpowered and under-featured, and raised a number of concerns about privacy and distracted driving. It only took a couple of years before Google stopped selling it in favor of focusing on Android Wear devices instead. But in its absence, the AR headset scene has grown considerably, with new and exciting products and services launching all the time.

Microsoft’s first-, and now second-, generation Hololens headsets showcase much more exciting applications of augmented reality than just checking social media feeds. Architects and 3D designers can wear them when creating new buildings or products, giving them the option to “build” in augmented reality, then move from a god-like view of their creation to a scale model that they can walk around. This can all be done while retaining the ability to access real-world tools in their periphery, or by switching away from their digital creations for a second.

Unlike virtual reality, augmented reality lets you maintain a much firmer grasp on the world around you. That makes it easier to stay grounded with your digital experience, but also blend the two worlds together. You could place digital items you’re working with on your actual, physical desk. When constructing a building, developers could use augmented reality to overlay where pipes and electrics are or need to be installed.

At a recent demo of Hololens 2 at Microsoft’s Build 2019, the company showed how a wearer could use a collaborative meeting tool to interact with other AR headset wearers in a virtual meeting room. Avatars of other participants can be present in the 3D space to collaborate on shared media, and even non-headset wearers could participate through floating 2D screens that are visible within the mixed reality space.

Training and education are an exciting potential growth area for augmented reality too. Imagine doing home plumbing where not only can you see a floating video screen giving you instructions on how to proceed, but also contextual arrows or highlights that point you to the piece of pipe or fitting you need to adjust — all completely hands-free. Surgeons and doctors can use it for learning about certain procedures, or overlay existing data like MRI scans or X-rays over patients on an operating table.

Magic Leap’s googly-eyed goggles showcase another side of augmented reality in the home. It makes it possible to customize the size of a virtual TV in your living room, play a digital board game on a tabletop, snuggle with a virtual pet on your sofa, or pull up a calendar and organize your day within your very real home office.

What’s next?

The technologies underlying augmented reality headsets and software are advancing all the time. They’re getting smaller, lighter, more detailed, and more credible by the day. Augmented reality looks set to revolutionize on-the-job training, and enhance the abilities of designers, artists, retailers, game developers, and office workers. It may even one day become the way we interact with the internet as a whole — if they can figure out a good way to display web pages in it.

But it’s not quite there yet. These technologies can still be prohibitively expensive. A Hololens 2 headset that holds all sort of exciting potential is still $3,500. That keeps it in the realm of businesses and wealthy early adopters. But as we’ve seen with smartphone technology over the past decade and virtual reality in the past half of it, the prices eventually come down and the technology only becomes more accessible.

In the decade to come, augmented reality is likely to change the way we interact with the digital world forever.

Product Review

Oculus Quest is the affordable VR rig we’ve been waiting for

Oculus announced that its Project Santa Cruz virtual reality headset will ship next year as the Oculus Quest, and we got to try out several new game titles on the Quest. Find out our impressions of VR without wires.
Gaming

From controllers to the cameras, here's what we know about the HTC Vive Cosmos

The HTC Vive Cosmos headset is a premium VR device equipped with a modular design and ease-of-use when setting up. Here is everything we know about the headset, including its cameras and controllers.
Podcasts

Spaced Out: To the Moon and Beyond

Mobile technology is finally advancing out of the standard form we've become used to. The Samsung Galaxy Fold is one example of further innovation and possibly a redesign of how we communicate and interact with our devices. Will 5G…
Emerging Tech

Trippy VR demo reads your brain waves to create sleep-inducing visuals

Struggle to get to sleep? Researchers in Australia have been experimenting with ways to combine a person’s brain activity with virtual reality to create a kind of VR lullaby machine.
Gaming

Shoot, dance, box, and escape reality with the very best Oculus Quest games

The Oculus Quest offers a fantastic virtual reality experience without the need for a PC or console tethered to your headset. These are the best Oculus Quest games available right now.
Mobile

Google’s new $999 augmented reality smartglasses are ready for business

Google unveiled Google Glass Enterprise Edition 2, a new version of its business-focused augmented reality wearable. The company's smartglasses ship with a faster processor, an updated camera, and safety frames from Smith Optics.
Cars

Volvo wants to use augmented reality tech to help design future cars

Volvo and Finnish tech firm Varjo developed an augmented reality headset that can be used while driving a real car. Volvo claims this will help speed up the development process of future cars.
News

Apple unveils ARKit 3 for more immersive augmented reality experiences

Apple has unveiled ARKit 3, which brings major improvements to its augmented reality platform. New features include people occlusion and motion capture, in addition to RealityKit and Reality Composer.
Computing

HTC’s Vive Pro Eye, a $1,600 VR headset with eye-tracking, is all business

HTC has finally released its Vive Pro Eye virtual reality headset in the United States, but before you get excited, it's important to note that it's not really for gamers. This headset is meant for commercial and business use.
Deals

Walmart offers the Oculus Go virtual reality headset with a $30 gift card

Are you in the market for a virtual reality headset? Walmart is running a great deal on the Oculus Go VR headset. Here's everything you need to know about this great standalone headset.
Gaming

Immerse yourself in a new universe with these incredible PSVR games

The PSVR surpassed expectations and it comes with an incredible catalog of games. There's plenty of amazing experiences to be had so we've put together a list of the best PSVR games available today.
Virtual Reality

Getting into VR is spendy. Which headset is truly worth your hard-earned cash?

Virtual reality has finally gone mainstream, but how do you find the best VR headset for you? Check out a few of our favorites, whether you want the best of the best or a budget alternative for your mobile device.
Computing

Dive into the best VR experiences available now on the Oculus Rift

The Oculus Rift brought back virtual reality and put a modern twist on it. Grab your Touch Controllers, put on your VR headset, and jump into the fun with some of the best Oculus Rift games available now.
Digital Trends Live

Digital Trends Live: iPhone 11 and Nintendo Switch leaks, insect meat, and more

On this episode of DT Live, we discuss the biggest trending stories in tech, including leaks of an iPhone 11 case and the Nintendo Switch mini console, Samsung’s roll-up display, virtual reality massage, insect meat, and more.