What is augmented reality?

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

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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

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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

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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.

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