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augmented reality (AR)

What is augmented reality (AR)?

Augmented reality (AR) is the integration of digital information with the user's environment in real time. Unlike virtual reality (VR), which creates a totally artificial environment, AR users experience a real-world environment with generated perceptual information overlaid on top of it.

Augmented reality is used to either visually change natural environments in some way or to provide additional information to users. The primary benefit of AR is that it manages to blend digital and three-dimensional (3D) components with an individual's perception of the real world. AR has a variety of uses, from helping in decision-making to entertainment.

AR delivers visual elements, sound and other sensory information to the user through a device like a smartphone or glasses. This information is overlaid onto the device to create an interwoven experience where digital information alters the user's perception of the real world. The overlaid information can be added to an environment or mask part of the natural environment.

Boeing Computer Services Research employee Thomas Caudell coined the term augmented reality in 1990 to describe how the head-mounted displays that electricians use when assembling complicated wiring harnesses worked. One of the first commercial applications of augmented reality technology was the yellow first down marker that began appearing in televised football games sometime in 1998. Today, Google Glass, smartphone games and heads-up displays (HUDs) in car windshields are the most well-known consumer AR products. But the technology is also used in many industries, including healthcare, public safety, gas and oil, tourism and marketing.

How does augmented reality work?

Augmented reality can be delivered in a variety of formats, including within smartphones, tablets and glasses. AR delivered through contact lenses is also being developed. The technology requires hardware components, such as a processor, sensors, a display and input devices. Mobile devices already typically have this hardware available, with sensors including cameras, accelerometers, Global Positioning System (GPS) and solid-state compasses. This helps make AR more accessible to the everyday user. A GPS is used to pinpoint the user's location, and its compass is used to detect device orientation, for example.

Sophisticated AR programs used by the military for training can also include machine vision, object recognition and gesture recognition. AR can be computationally intensive, so if a device lacks processing power, data processing can be offloaded to a different machine.

Augmented reality apps are written in special 3D programs that enable developers to tie animation or contextual digital information in the computer program to an augmented reality marker in the real world. When a computing device's AR app or browser plugin receives digital information from a known marker, it begins to execute the marker's code and layer the correct image or images.

Differences between AR and VR

VR is a virtual environment created with software and presented to users in such a way that their brain suspends belief long enough to accept a virtual world as a real environment. Virtual reality is primarily experienced through a headset with sight and sound.

The biggest difference between AR and VR is that augmented reality uses the existing real-world environment and puts virtual information on top of it, whereas VR completely immerses users in a virtually rendered environment. While VR puts the user in a new, simulated environment, AR places the user in a sort of mixed reality.

The devices used to accomplish this are different, too. VR uses VR headsets that fit over the user's head and present them with simulated visual and audio information. AR devices are less restrictive and typically include devices like phones, glasses, projections and HUDs in cars.

In VR, people are placed inside a 3D environment in which they can move around and interact with the generated environment. AR, however, keeps users grounded in the real-world environment, overlaying virtual data as a visual layer within the environment.

How AR and VR differ

Top AR use cases

AR can be used in the following ways:

  • Retail. Consumers can use a store's online app to see how products, such as furniture, will look in their own homes before buying.
  • Entertainment and gaming. AR can be used to overlay a virtual game in the real world or enable users to animate their faces in different and creative ways on social media.
  • Navigation. AR can be used to overlay a route to the user's destination over a live view of a road. AR used for navigation can also display information about local businesses in the user's immediate surroundings.
  • Tools and measurement. Mobile devices can use AR to measure different 3D points in the user's environment.
  • Architecture. AR can help architects visualize a building project.
  • Military. Data can be displayed on a vehicle's windshield that indicates destination directions, distances, weather and road conditions.
  • Archaeology. AR has aided archaeological research by helping archeologists reconstruct sites. 3D models help museum visitors and future archeologists experience an excavation site as if they were there.

Examples of AR

Examples of AR include the following:

  • Target app. The Target retail app feature called See it in Your Space enables users to take a photo of a space in their home and digitally view an object, like a picture on the wall or a chair, to see how it will look there.
  • Apple Measure app. The Measure app on Apple iOS acts like a tape measure by enabling users to select two or more points in their environment and measure the distance between them.
  • Snapchat. Snapchat filters use AR to overlay a filter or mask over the user's Snap or picture.
  • Pokemon Go. Pokemon Go is a popular mobile AR game that uses the player's GPS to detect where Pokemon creatures appear in the user's surrounding environment for them to catch.
  • Google Glass. Google Glass is Google's first commercial attempt at a glasses-based AR system. This small wearable computer enables users to work hands-free. Companies such as DHL and DB Schenker use Google Glass and third-party software to enable frontline workers to be more efficient when it comes to global supply chain logistics and customized shipping. Google is also working on another pair of glasses in 2022 that's designed to overlay a live transcription or translation of what another person says in text.
  • U.S. Army. The U.S. Army uses AR in an eyepiece called Tactical Augmented Reality (TAR). TAR mounts onto the soldier's helmet and aids in locating another soldier's position.

Future of AR technology

AR technology continues to grow as the popularity and familiarization of apps and games like Pokemon Go or retail store AR apps increase. The expansion of 5G networks may make it easier to support cloud-based augmented reality experiences, for example, by providing AR applications with higher data speeds and lower latency.

Apple continues to develop and update its open source mobile augmented reality development tool set, ARKit. Companies, including Target and Ikea, use ARKit in their flagship AR shopping apps for iPhone and iPad. ARKit 6 enables users to render AR in 4K high-dynamic range, or HDR, and improves image and video capture. ARKit 6 also provides a Depth API, which uses per-pixel depth information to enable a device's camera to understand the size and shape of an object and includes scene geometry that creates a topological map of a space along with other improvements.

The Android equivalent of ARKit, ARCore, also continues to grow and improve. For example, ARCore uses a geospatial API that sources data from Google Earth 3D models and Street View image data from Google Maps. Similar to ARKit's Depth API, ARCore has improved its Depth API, optimizing it for longer-range depth sensing.

Modern advances under development, such as Google's smart glasses that live translate audio to text, will revolutionize how people who speak different languages communicate. Because AR uses immersive technology, more opportunities and experiences across different platforms and media types are on the horizon.

Learn how augmented reality can integrate into customer experience technology.

This was last updated in November 2022

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