What is 'augmented reality'?

Over the last few years, a new generation of virtual reality technology has made waves around the world – but more recently, an approach known as ‘augmented reality’ has stolen the headlines. 

 

‘Augmented reality’, or AR, might not currently be as familiar as ‘virtual reality’, but that could be about to change. 

Apple have made augmented reality technology a major part of their newest phones, with dedicated AR processors in the iPhone 8 and iPhone X – so we’re likely to hear a lot more about AR in the near future. 

That’s why today, we’re finding out what exactly AR is – and how it has the potential to change the way you see the world around you. 

 

What is AR – and how is it different from VR?

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Virtual reality – seen in kit like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets – tries to portray an entirely computer-created world. 

The idea is that you don your virtual reality headset and become completely immersed in another reality: one where everything you see has been rendered by your computer, smartphone or other hardware. 

This makes it fantastic for playing games, watching movies or enjoying any other form of entertainment that tries to provide a little escapism – or a sense of otherworldly wonder. 

Augmented reality, by contrast, aims to project computer-generated objects and imagery into the real world – usually as seen through a camera lens.

In other words, it adds to (or augments) reality – rather than replacing it outright, as in VR. 

 

The tech behind augmented reality

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The first augmented reality systems were the ‘head-up displays’ developed for pilots in the 1950s. These projected important flight data directly into the pilot’s line of sight, preventing the need to look down at a panel of instruments. 

But the modern technology is far more sophisticated – if somewhat less practical. 

Perhaps the most popular augmented reality application of the moment is Pokemon GO! – the mobile game that took the world by storm in 2016.  One of the game’s great hooks is that it ‘projects’ virtual Pokemon into your real surroundings, so you can experience the thrill of catching a Pikachu at the bottom of your actual garden! 

Other forms of the technology are more ambitious, relying – like VR – on custom headsets and other hardware to produce an immersive experience.

Google’s ill-fated Glass headset is probably the best-known example, but privacy concerns and an underwhelming set of launch features meant it failed to get off the ground. 

More ambitious is Microsoft’s HoloLens, which the company calls “the first self-contained, holographic computer”. They also call augmented reality “mixed reality” – which, to be fair, is a catchier name! 

As with other sophisticated AR kit, the HoloLens isn’t quite ready for prime time just yet – although app makers and other professionals can get a ‘Development Edition’ headset for an eye-watering £2,719.

Microsoft pitch the platform as something that “brings people, places and objects from your physical and digital worlds together. The blended environment becomes your canvas, where you can create and enjoy a wide range of experiences.” 

But with such a high barrier to entry, it’s unlikely to find mainstream success in the short term. More likely, the immediate future of AR lies in our smartphones and tablets. Apple have built AR capabilities directly into the iPhone 8 and iPhone X as part of their “A11 Bionic” processor – so where do they see the technology going?  

 

How is augmented reality used today?

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The latest version of iOS, iOS 11, features something they call the “ARKit” development tool.  

This makes it much easier for app developers to create AR apps by handing a lot of the hard stuff – detecting walls and floors, recognising faces, judging depth and so on.

But at this early stage, less than two months after the release of iOS 11, developers haven’t had much time to get to grips with it in any serious way. That said, there have been a few interesting uses of the tech:

We were particularly impressed by the Magic Sudoku app by Hatchlings Inc. This uses ARKit technology to recognise any sudoku puzzle and automatically solves it for you. This is arguably less fun than solving the puzzle the old-fashioned way – but it’s amazingly impressive all the same.

GiphyWORLD is perhaps a better example of what AR can do: this fun app allows you to fill your environment with any number of colourful animated GIFs. It’s guaranteed to wow your family and friends – despite being short on practical benefits.

But like any new technology, AR needs time to mature, and ARKit should help the process along nicely. High end devices like the HoloLens might wow enthusiasts and hobbyists, but the more practical and accessible ARKit will inspire more developers to think about AR.

By giving app designers simple, off-the-shelf AR tools, it’s that much easier for them to design genuinely innovative experiences. Augmented reality is currently in its infancy – but we can’t wait to see where it goes next.

 

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