Augmented reality (AR) is a technology capable of inserting digital elements into real-world settings to offer consumers and professionals a hybrid experience of reality.
While AR is compatible with a growing list of devices, it is most popular on smartphone applications. Organizations continue to seek ways to apply AR to business processes, products, and services, while most AR tools today are consumer-facing.
While different from virtual reality, both innovations represent a field of technology dubbed extended reality (XR).
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Types of Augmented Reality
Recognizes real-world image components and uses objects in picture frames as points of reference and orientation for pre-programmed AR features. An example of marker-based AR is applications that teach technical skills like engineering. Applications designed for specific machinery allow trainees to optimize learning and practice the real-world skill.
With no pre-programmed components for recognition, markerless AR uses cameras, sensors, processors, and algorithms to detect points on-screen and map virtual objects in a real-life scene. An example of markerless AR is applications that allow consumers to place furniture and other retail items inside the consumer’s home or personal space.
A type of markerless simulation, location-based AR incorporates geographic data like GPS, digital compass, and an accelerometer to extend augmented reality to a world of physical locations. An example of location-based AR was the 2016 launch of Pokémon Go by Nintendo and AR-company Niantic.
How does AR work?
For consumers, using augmented reality is as simple as turning on the AR-enabled device and getting started (plug-and-play). While smartphones dominate AR use cases, for now, the technology is also compatible with eyeglasses, goggles, and headsets to give users an enhanced hybrid reality experience.
More specifically, augmented reality takes a combination of hardware and software to process real-world video and overlay the digital components for developers. Through software embedded or downloaded to the AR-compatible device, users can access games, applications, and more that incorporate digital visual elements, sounds, and stimuli. Digital sensors allow the user to control aspects of the AR setting through activity.
Augmented reality vs. VR, MR, and XR
Augmented Reality (AR)
Adds digital components to a real-world setting
Virtual Reality (VR)
Isolated digital environment simulating real-world setting
Mixed Reality (MR)
Combines elements of AR and VR
Extended Reality (XR)
Umbrella term to cover all extended reality technologies
Examples of augmented reality
Bringing Games to the Real World
Video games have long been a source of entertainment and an indicator of technology’s progress, and AR brings gaming closer to reality. Apps like Pokémon Go incentivize users to get physically moving by creating an augmented world full of Pokémon to catch, gyms to visit, and other trainers to compete against.
Bridging the Gap between Consumers and Retailers
The use of AR in consumer applications is a good thing for consumers and vendors. With apps from IKEA, Homestyler, and Wayfair, retailers have a new way of reaching customers. Potential customers can find an item they like and place it in their room of choice from the app. Retailers can reach more customers, offer more information, and sell goods online.
Technical Skills and Professions
Professions like surgeons, engineers, and pilots all include extensive training, years of experience, and meticulous attention to detail. AR’s implementation into technical training ensures individuals can practice and visualize their tasks thousands of times before the actual event. One such example: a neurosurgeon analyzing a 3-D brain before performing surgery.
Media and Broadcasting
In live broadcasts, especially involving sports, television producers have long used AR to enhance the viewer’s experience. Whether it’s the trajectory of a golf ball, the first down marker on an NFL football game, or an on-screen element tracking swimmers racing the 200-meter freestyle, AR technology is enhancing TV viewers’ watching experience.
In 2020, the NFL and Nickelodeon partnered to broadcast an unprecedented football game featuring Spongebob-themed AR elements. In an experiment to test the technology and appeal to kids, producers used AR to fill the screen with slime, sparks, and color during an otherwise regular football game.
Predicting augmented reality
In 1901, the author of the Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum, wrote of electronic spectacles that inserted data into real life for consumers. Baum wrote:
“I give you the Character Marker. It consists of this pair of spectacles. While you wear them, everyone you meet will be marked upon the forehead with a letter indicating his or her character. The good will bear the letter ‘G,’ the evil the letter ‘E.’ The wise will be marked with a ‘W’ and the foolish with an ‘F.’ The kind will show a ‘K’ upon their foreheads and the cruel a letter ‘C.’ Thus you may determine by a single look the true natures of all those you encounter.”
Though augmented reality can’t discern good from evil humans, Baum’s idea isn’t far from how AR works today.