Augmented Reality: The Basics

Augmented Reality is not a new technology, coming to life in the late 60s. However, it has finally reached the point where it matches what we’ve been seeing in “Tomorrow’s World” type TV programs, sci-fi movies and in video games for many years. In short, the augmented reality of our dreams is here, and it is about to be huge.

For a good historical perspective, check out this infographic that shows its first uses in military simulators, then at NASA, in universities and finally out into the wider world. We see AR in many places around us, those enhanced graphics on TV sports, in shows where dead artists come to life. But, for some of us, our first play with augmented reality came with early mobile apps or the Nintendo 3DS or PlayStation Vita – portable game consoles that came with little cards to help set the AR landscape.

The cards limited those experiences to floor-based or table-top play, and while a few innovative games arrived, no one really experimented with what was possible. Also, these relatively low-resolution devices didn’t put on the best show, leaving it a  novelty more for the kids.

Modern mobile AR doesn’t need the cards, freeing up the technology from one of its major stumbling blocks. Also, video processing and battery power has moved on immensely in recent years. Now, users just look through the screen and on the other side, the real world mixes with HD quality graphics or useful information.

The AR experimental age

Since then quite a few experiments have been tried on mobile devices, but interest really spiked with the arrival of Pokemon Go. It sent millions of users, young and old, hunting digital monsters out in the streets, creating quite the social phenomenon. Not everyone plays games, but there are plenty of other areas where AR has made an appearance, Amikasa helps you position virtual furniture in your room, and most sofa, home or bed shops are adding this feature.

For younger users, there are plenty more games to try, while Quiver is an augmented coloring book, and many encyclopedia apps now feature augmented content to make learning more inspiring.  At work, AR apps turn 3D products into explorable exploding diagrams, AR buildings can help architects show off their skyscrapers in new ways, while instructions and guides can be made universally understandable using AR rather than poorly translated text.

Marketers like the idea of AR, but tend to struggle to innovate with it. The best examples are in store windows or bus shelter ads, where people can focus on a QR-code to launch an AR app. This will show something cool, but needs everyone to understand the technology and install yet another app.

The future for AR starts here

Now that technology has caught up, now that we have all this power, it is up to developers to decide what to do with it, and for the public to accept it. One way forward for both parties is Apple’s inclusion of ARKit in iOS 11. Apple will sell millions of phones with the OS, and millions of more older iPhone users will upgrade. That creates a market ripe for investigation, and as we’ve seen with office, creativity, games and other app segments, once a technology takes hold, people rapidly accept it.

As that swell of activity is noticed, then Android device makers and app creators, which already have a range of good AR tools and software development tools, will likely start to push the experience on their phones, tablets and apps. Platforms like VuForia, Wikitude and the free-to-use EasyAR can help anyone create AR apps, but it will take something like ARKit to make more coders and users sit up and take notice.

In the business world, AR and VR technologies are seeing large amounts of investment at the moment, and the arrival of ARKit will spark more interest. AR Features in common business apps won’t be too far around the corner, helping visualize complex problems or products, or making it easier for people to interact with them.

The battle between AR and VR

However, AR won’t have the market to itself. The technology is in a pitched battle, especially when it comes to entertainment and marketing. AR has an advantage in that it doesn’t require expensive virtual headsets, extra controllers or super-powerful hardware. However, VR is more immersive, has more of an impact on people when they are dropped into a full world that they can freely roam around.

There will be some clear use cases where one wins out over the other, either down to cost, practicality or portability. And mixed solutions like Microsoft’s HoloLens, aimed firmly at business, provide a third path for developers to explore. Certainly, wearing a headset but still being able to see reality gives HoloLens a big tick for practicality. And, with others (including a rumor that Apple will launch a Glasses product), this young market has a lot still to show us.

Hopefully, you now understand how we get to where we are with augmented reality, now let’s focus on the technology and magic that makes it happen.

A little AR magic

Putting graphics on a flat touchscreen is one of the first basics any computer or app programmer learns. But now consider the complexity involved in putting graphics against the ever-changing background of the real world. Fortunately, modern devices come with sensors and software that can detect distance, depth, shapes and forms.

This helps the software understand the scene we see with our eyes, that is replicated on the screen. It can then add visuals to that scene, and with enough computing power can “stick” signs to walls, replace the original text (fun for translations in foreign countries), make moving objects go around obstacles, down steps or up slopes, and measure distances or perform other calculations.

With that power built into the software development tools and the innate processing grunt of higher-end or mid-range smartphones or tablets, we have a computer that can place complex graphics in fluid scenes. Which brings us to the applications for AR. We’ve touched on these across this piece, but the key areas are:

Games/Education

The leading proponent of any new technology is usually the games industry (if we ignore the porn market). And gamers like to feel immersed in their games, which is why VR, even at high cost has been such a success. But for the rest of us, or younger players, augmented reality merges two worlds perfectly well and creates new opportunities for developers to do something other than just another 3D shooter or 2D platformer.

Yes, it will take a while for coders and designers to come up with the games that will make AR really sing, but even the experiments and early titles should be really attractive. The same goes for education products, helping those with concentration issues focus better or those with learning difficulties become more involved in the subject.

Marketing

Advertisers are running out of ideas fast, why else is Skeletor pimping insurance? But mixed and augmented reality allows a degree of interaction with static adverts on the street, TV adverts at home or adverts in magazines. Being able to get people to interact with a product or service improves the chances of them gaining an interest.

Business

Productivity is the key word in most businesses these days, and from induction to training, AR on a work device can help new employees find their way around, learn the ropes of a company and provide answers that would otherwise take the time of HR staff. Faster onboarding means they will be earning more quickly and less likely to hold others back.

Beyond personnel, AR guides, tutorials and instructions can replace costly brochures, manuals and customer service avenues. Technology often helps save companies money, but AR can help improve the customer experience and create new ways of customer interaction with products.

Sports

Sports on TV and the rising world of eSports are going a sea-change in presentation, where AR could play a major part. Apps that provide more information than the TV screen can show will engage sports fans, while eSports followers can take more control over what or who they watch. eSports might sound a novelty now, but is one of the fastest growing entertainment mediums in the world, so expect the computer-obsessed presenters to use AR as a key asset.

All of which brings us to some amazing possibilities in the near future. Stick with us to watch them unfold.