Augmented reality (AR) is a technology that overlays digital elements onto a user’s view of the real world. This might mean relaying live information about visible items or locations, or it could mean digitally inserting virtual 3D objects into physical settings.
Some companies envisage AR as a replacement for computer screens, such as Israeli startup Sightful. It recently demoed a pair of AR glasses that did exactly that (see image below). We cover more potential scenarios later in this article.
Augmented reality versus virtual reality
Virtual reality (VR) fully replaces the user’s view with a rendered scene, effectively transporting them into a virtual space. With AR, the user stays in the real world, but sees additional digital content.
Like VR, augmented reality can be implemented via a headset, with motion-sensing and head-tracking technology. If such a system allows the user to interact directly with digital elements, it’s sometimes called “mixed reality”. However, regular AR can also be accessed via passive, non-immersive media, such as smart glasses or a phone screen.
What can augmented reality be used for?
For businesses, AR is a valuable tool for product design and prototyping. Digital models can be examined and explored as if they were physical constructions, and tweaked and adjusted in real time.
AR also has applications in specialist fields such as medicine or engineering. Operatives can use an AR headset to keep vital information in view as they work, or call up hands-free access to notes and procedures.
For retailers, AR is a powerful end-user technology. Brands including Ikea and Shopify offer AR smartphone apps, which project items of furniture and accessories into customers’ own homes. Amazon’s general-purpose AR view can place 3D renderings of a huge range of items in real-world scenes.
Augmented reality is also ideal for navigation. The Google Maps app for Android and iOS uses the smartphone camera to capture a live street view, then superimposes digital signage directing the user to their destination.
Then there is the metaverse. Should this ever take off, then a pair of AR glasses might be the obvious way to take part in calls.
What are the downsides of AR?
Smartphone-based AR applications lack the convenience of a headset. However, as with VR, headset hardware tends to be bulky, expensive and uncomfortable to wear for long periods. Battery life can be an issue too.
What’s more, since AR requires an always-on camera view to recognise and track the user’s surroundings, privacy concerns arise. Although two huge tech companies have released AR systems in the past decade (Google Glass and the Microsoft HoloLens) no one has yet come up with a wearable AR solution that’s practical and socially acceptable to wear all day.
What does the future hold for augmented reality?
It has long been rumoured that Apple is developing on a pair of AR smart glasses, which could bring the technology into the mainstream. Researchers elsewhere are working on car windscreens with built-in navigation, and AR-enabled contact lenses that are invisible to others.
Whatever the delivery method, AR is sure to grow in the coming years: the high bandwidth and low latency of 5G wireless networking will make it possible for individuals to stream live digital content wherever they go. This will only be accelerated by 6G when it eventually lands.
- Augmented reality provides a view of the real world that’s overlaid with digital information or objects
- Augmented reality has many potential business applications, from product design to specialist engineering – and it can be a powerful marketing tool too
- Unlike virtual reality, AR isn’t immersive; it doesn’t require a headset, although it can be used with one.
- The first few attempts at mainstream AR systems haven’t found mainstream success, but many companies are working to improve the technology
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