What is Augmented Reality?
AR or Augmented reality technology is a science fiction idea that thankfully turned true! The fundamental idea behind augmented reality is to add something extra to your experience of reality. So, if you are watching a movie or playing a game, AR adds to that experience in some way or form to turn the experience immersive and interactive.
Today, we've managed to achieve this by overlaying digital information onto a real-world environment via a headset or a smartphone. But, a true AR experience also includes other sensory modalities such as sound, touch, and olfactory. This is often achieved by accessories that go with the AR headsets to create a sensory enriched environment.
Now that you know the meaning of AR, let's find out how augmented reality works.
How Augmented Reality Works?
The very idea of mixing the real and virtual worlds sounds futuristic and exciting. To achieve such a feat, AR needs the help of a few components. These include a camera, sensors, computer vision, and a display.
Cameras and sensors gather information about the environment where the AR content needs to be overlayed. A computer vision system or a processing unit interprets this information. It determines how to integrate virtual objects in a real-world environment. A display finally streams the AR content for the user.
If you notice, these components are readily available in today's smartphones. But, for advanced and more realistic AR experiences, self-contained AR headsets are used that operate on the same principle.
A Brief History of AR
Many believe that Augmented Reality is a technology of the 2000s. Yet, this is years off from the truth. In 1968, Ivan Sutherland created a head-mounted display that he called Sword of Damocles. In the technology realm, Sutherland was often quoted as the father of computer graphics.
In his essay “The Ultimate Display”, Sutherland wrote about how this headset could help us see the unseen thanks to the help of technology. Many consider his invention to be the first VR headset. It paved the way for future technologies to follow.
Although, the term "Augmented Reality" was first coined in 1990 by a Boeing researcher, Tom Caudell. He created a method where the head-mounted display can be used to display airplane wiring. This new technique eliminated the need for large plywood wiring schematics that needed reconfiguring through every step of the process.
Tom’s application is one of the first widely-known uses of AR in an industrial setting. Today, AR applications have spanned across a diverse set of industries such as education, medicine, communications, and entertainment.
But before we dive into the applications of AR, let’s find out what made this revolutionary technology gain sudden traction.
The Modern Resurgence of AR and the Root for Its Popularity
Even though the concept of AR was existent since the 1990s, it did not gain widespread attention until 2016. It was all thanks to the ever-popular Pokémon Go mobile game. The interactive game leveraged AR to provide players with immersive gaming experience, attracting millions into trying out AR.
Pokémon Go broke the Guinness world record for the highest ever revenue for a mobile game in its first month.
The game’s popularity gave a major boost to AR. Application developers were quick to pick up this trend, building AR-enabled applications with different use cases.
Currently, there are over 2,000 AR apps available on both iOS and Play Store. They aren’t all games though. There are several utilitarian apps such as Google’s own AR Measure App that lets you take measurements with your phone’s camera.
Types of Augmented Reality
AR technology is categorized into two types, each having its own benefits and limitations - marker-based AR and markerless AR.
Marker-based AR, as the name suggests, uses a visual marker, usually in the form of a 2D QR code to trigger augmented reality experience. This is made possible through marker-based applications that use the camera on the device to recognize the code and produce AR effects on top of it.
Once the application recognizes the marker, the device can be moved slightly without distorting the AR object. However, the problem with marker-based AR is that it is almost exclusive to mobile devices. Besides, the users must download the software to experience the AR content, making it less instantaneous.
Markerless AR does not require image recognition to trigger augmented experiences. Instead, the AR content gets displayed through positional information collected from the device's camera, GPS, digital compass, and accelerometer. The inputs from these data points allow the system to understand the 3D environment through a process known as Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM).
With SLAM, the AR content is overlayed onto the real-world environment, which is viewable from any angle or position. While the development efforts behind this type of AR is complex, the results are equally stunning, which is why it is quickly becoming the first choice for the advanced AR developers.
There are two distinct variations of Markerless AR - projection-based and location-based.
Project-based augmented reality involves projecting immersive light forms onto flat surfaces and then sensing the human interaction with that projected light. This is done by detecting the difference between a known projection and the altered projection resulting from the interaction. A 3D hologram projected through laser light is also one of the examples of projection-based AR.
Location-based augmented reality fixes the AR content to a specific place. Once the real-world environment gets mapped and the visual positions defined, the AR content gets superimposed when the user's device data matches the mapped location.
Notable Developments in the AR Space
AR’s rapid growth invited substantial investments from venture capitalists as well as leading technology companies. The technology that was once seemed futuristic is now a reality. Thanks to a series of developments that made this possible. Let’s look at some of the key developments.
AR Application Development Kits
This all began with technology giants like Google and Apple introducing AR development kits for developers to create native AR apps for Android and iOS devices.
With Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore, application developers now have access to the tools to develop a variety of AR apps that assist or entertain end-users in more ways than one.
Other popular AR development kits include Wikitude, Vuforia, and EasyAR, each having distinct capabilities to develop high-fidelity, immersive AR experiences.
The Rise of AR Headsets
While AR made its way to our smartphones, there’s an equal amount of development happening in the wearables realm, and AR headsets are prime examples of it.
Google AR Glasses
Google had a tough time developing AR glasses. Although the search engine giant was one of the first companies to work on an AR wearable, its 2013 release met with a ton of criticism.
However, Google Glass went through a series of changes and has released a new version called Google Glass Enterprise Edition. It is at its second version now and Google markets its Glass exclusively for industries and enterprises.
On March 30th, 2016, Microsoft gave the tech industry a taste of AR future with their HoloLens. It is a mixed reality headset capable of providing VR and AR experiences. Nevertheless, the world was more interested in its AR capabilities. This is because Microsoft managed to demonstrate some of the practical use cases of its MR headset in different scenarios.
The headset uses specialized optics and holographic processing to turn visual information into 3D images in a real-world environment. From remote support and education to designing and gaming, HoloLens offers endless possibilities to leverage the power of AR.
Apple AR Glasses
Unlike Google and Microsoft, we know very little about what Apple’s plans are for AR wearables. Rumors suggest that we might see Apple AR Glasses by 2020, but take this with a grain of salt. With Apple actively investing in ARKit, we are yet to see what their AR Glasses will have in store for the public.
Recent Happenings in the AR World
The developments in the AR space are happening at a break necking speed. Apart from the holy trinity of the tech world, there are other companies actively developing hardware for AR and MR. Magic Leap is one such company that quickly gained traction with its AR glasses called Magic Leap One.
nReal is another tech enterprise that recently showcased its AR glasses called nReal Light. These AR glasses are relatively affordable and look more like ordinary shades. The social media giant, Facebook, is collaborating with Ray-Ban on an AR glass venture, code named Orion.
Applications of AR in the Real World
The concept of AR became popular with Pokemon Go, but today the technology finds applications in a variety of fields. AR has already proved its potential in industrial applications. It is now marking its importance on the customer-facing side as well. Automotive companies like Audi are using AR for interactive demos. AR in eCommerce is another area where AR is being increasingly seen as a game-changer. For example, IKEA has an AR app that enables users to try out true-to-scale 3D models of products at their home to see how a product would look before buying it. There are also vast possibilities for AR in healthcare and medicine. With Facebook recently rolling out a beta version of AR ad formats, the technology has a potential even in the advertising and marketing space.
This is Just the Beginning
AR technology is still at its nascent stage. With the market for AR projected to reach $85 billion by 2025, these developments seem to be just the beginning. As the technology matures, new possibilities to apply AR will emerge simultaneously, leading to new ways of assisting and entertaining users.
As far as the technology is concerned, AR is here to stay, and stay for long!