What Is Augmented Reality?

Augmented reality is the result of using technology to overlay information – sound, images and words – on the world we see. Think “Minority Report” or “Iron Man”-style interactivity.

Augmented Reality vs. Virtual Reality
This is quite different from virtual reality. Virtual reality is a computer-generated environment that allows you to interact with it and immerse yourself in it. Augmented Reality (also known as AR) adds to the reality you normally see, rather than replacing it.

Applications of Augmented Reality in Today’s World
Augmented reality is often presented as a futuristic technology, but one form of it has been around for years. For example, back in the 1990s, head-up displays on many fighter jets would display information about the aircraft’s attitude, direction, and speed, only to show a few years later which objects in the field of view were targets.

Over the past decade, various labs and companies have built devices that give us augmented reality, and in 2009, the Fluid Interface group at MIT Media Lab introduced SixthSense, a device that combines the use of a camera, a small projector, a smartphone, and a mirror. The device hangs from the user’s chest in the form of a lanyard from around the neck. Four sensor devices on the user’s finger can be used to manipulate the images projected by the SixthSense.

Google introduced Google Glass in 2013 to move augmented reality to a more wearable interface; in this case, glasses. It displays on the user’s lens screen via a small projector and responds to voice commands to overlay images, video and sound onto the screen. Google removed Google Glass in late December 2015.

As it happens, phones and tablets are the way augmented reality has entered most people’s lives. For example, the Star Walk app from Vitro Technologies allows users to point the camera in their tablet or phone at the sky and see the names of stars and planets superimposed on the image. Another app, called Layar, uses a smartphone’s GPS and camera to gather information about the user’s surroundings. It then displays information about nearby restaurants, stores and points of interest.

Some apps for tablets and phones also work with other objects. Disney Research has developed an AR coloring book where you color a character in a traditional (though app-compatible) book and then launch the app on your device. The app accesses the camera and uses it to detect the character you’re coloring and uses the software to recreate the character on the screen in 3D.

One of the most popular ways for AR to infiltrate everyday life is through mobile gaming. According to CNET, the AR game “Pokémon Go” became a global sensation in 2016, with an estimated over 100 million users at its peak. It ended up making more than $2 billion and growing, according to Forbes. The game allows users to see Pokémon characters jumping around their city. The goal is to capture these pocket monsters and then use them to battle others in local AR gyms.

In 2018, “Harry Potter. Hogwarts Mysteries” became the trendsetter for mobile AR games. The game allows users to see the Hogwarts world around them, while casting spells, using potions, and learning from Hogwarts teachers. As of this writing, the game has been downloaded about 10 million times from the Google Play Store.

Researchers are also developing holograms, which could take VR a step further, as holograms allow a group of people to see and hear at the same time.

“While hologram research has played an important role in the development of futuristic displays and augmented reality devices, today we are working on many other applications, such as ultra-thin and lightweight optical devices for cameras and satellites,” said researcher Lei Wang, a PhD student at ANU’s School of Physics and Engineering Research, in a statement.

The future of augmented reality
This doesn’t mean that phones and tablets will be the only place for AR. Research into adding AR functionality to contact lenses and other wearable devices is still proceeding apace. The ultimate goal of augmented reality is to create a convenient and natural sense of immersion, so there’s a sense that phones and tablets will be replaced, though it’s not clear what those alternatives will be. Even glasses may take new forms, as “smart glasses” are developed for the blind.

As with any new technology, there are many political and ethical issues with AR. Google Glass, for example, has raised privacy concerns. Some people worry that conversations may be surreptitiously recorded or photographed, or believe they may be recognized by facial recognition software. However, AR glasses and contact lenses, such as Glass – X and Google Lens, are moving forward with production and sales.