“Augmented reality” is one of those techno-labels that seem to pop up once every five or so years, signaling to consumers a huge leap in technology that may or not actually be happening. However, around 2016 augmented reality finally became a real, tangible tech product for many average consumers. Thanks to mobile computing, ubiquitous networks, advanced AR platforms and software, consumer-grade products like video games and digital maps are providing cutting-edge customer experience.
But most consumers don’t know that augmented reality is one of those technologies that have been around for decades. Recently, the United States Army, already a large investor in AR research, is now entering into partnerships with private companies like Microsoft to use wearables like the HoloLens for combat and training purposes. This investment isn’t a historical anomaly: the military has been at the forefront of AR development since the 1960s.
So before we even talk about the impact of AR, let’s talk more about what it actually is. Or, more accurately, let’s talk about where it comes from and what investors and developers are hoping that it can accomplish.
What is Augmented Reality?
To understand augmented reality, let’s talk about a closely related technology: virtual reality.
Virtual reality is the use of technology to create a fully-realized digital world entirely through technology. Virtual reality, commonly seen in science fiction movies, involves a user fully immersed in a digital landscape that they can interact with, either through sight and sound or even incorporating touch.
Augmented reality shares similarities with virtual reality, in that users are interacting with digital objects and landscapes. It differs in that augmented reality seeks to overlay digital objects onto views of a real landscape, whereas virtual reality technology will provide a fully immersed digital world. AR tech takes digital objects like text boxes, diagrams, and even fully-rendered 3D models & animations and projects or overlays them on a screen capturing real-world views.
Augmented reality, like virtual reality, isn’t a new idea. In fact, VR and AR shared many common elements that would lead to research in both fields. As far back as 1968, computer scientists were developing headset technologies to include digital projections on real-world spaces. The interest in augmented and virtual reality were primarily driven by how digital imaging and information could literally enhance what we could do through our senses by providing additional information about our environment or an abstract location (like a virtual space).
Through the middle of the 20th century, AR mainly found development and adoption in university research settings and military projects (and given the relationship of universities and the military post-WW2, many of these projects were shared). Consequently, while there were some attempts at consumer or art-focused AR products, one of the primary driving needs that AR would address was the development of military technology. For example, AR was one of the focal points for the decades-long projects into Heads-Up Displays for soldiers in the field or pilots in the air. These displays would provide soldiers with accurate information about their location, their mission, and their team in the field (or in airplanes, or space shuttles, depending on the need). The Cold War, and the resulting race for advanced technology that could give the United States military an advantage, drove innovation in AR through the 1960s and 1970s.
Academic and military research didn’t stop, as the Navy and NASA adopted AR for training and the development of wearable tech for soldiers. But, as academic and art-based research into AR trickled out of the academy (and as digital technology became more of a reality outside of niche military and scientific applications), consumer interest in augmented reality began to rise. Portable smart devices like phones and tablets came equipped with built-in cameras and geolocation devices.
It wasn’t until 1998, however, that AR launched for a mass consumer audience. The NFL began to overlay the “1st and 10” line on broadcasts. While many viewers found the image itself annoying, helpful, or just “there”, it was the first time that digital imaging was laid over a real telecast in real time for a mass public viewing. Seemingly simple now, this was an important step towards AR awareness in the public mind. It also demonstrated that AR technology could be a benefit for even the most banal use: in this case, Monday Night Football.
AR, however, was still a niche product for general consumers. Perhaps the biggest jump in public awareness for AR, and the realization that AR could be viable as a commodity, was the release of Google Glass in 2013. This ushered in a new revolution of “wearables”, or devices that could superimpose a virtual world over the real one viewed through goggles or glasses. Wearables were both a huge leap forward and a callback to the history of AR development… the earliest visions and development of augmented reality involved goggles or headsets to filter the world.
The hope with these early wearables was that the general public would adopt AR as the new paradigm of media consumption, but Google Glass fizzled out on the consumer market. Google Glass set the stage for wearables as a marketable product, however. Several wearables emerged in the wake of Google Glass, including Microsoft’s HoloLens. And Google has quietly released Google Glass Enterprise, geared towards engineers and manufacturers in heavy industries, healthcare businesses, and other businesses where immediate access to information is important.
Have I seen Augmented Reality Before?
Most likely, if you are a user of smartphones or tablets. For many, the most recognizable AR technology to come out is Pokémon Go. While not necessarily of interest for enterprise customers, it represents all the advances of AR tech in one package. Users can enable their phone or tablet cameras to capture real-life footage. Using location data from GPS tracking, the program overlays 3D models of creature-like cartoons that the player interacts with. The location of the objects is directly tied to the world around them, location dependent.
However, even if you haven’t played Pokémon Go, you may have seen AR in programs like Snapchat and Instagram. These apps can sense your location and interpret the environment through your device’s camera in order to impose filters and animated objects, which allows for creative picture and video sharing.
But, while AR has found some purchase in these specific apps and other consumer industries like retail customer service and video games, it is finding strong adoption in commercial and industrial contexts. But on the enterprise side, it really depends on what industry you work in. Those in aeronautics manufacturing, healthcare, military and defense, or even retail, might soon see (or might already see) the impact of AR technology in training employees, providing information to workers in the field, or engaging more with their consumers.
What are the Key Technologies Available for AR Users?
There are several technologies that come together to support augmented reality. Some of the basic, necessary technologies are:
- A networked camera or recording device. This can take the form of a wearable, a smartphone, or a tablet.
- Data for location information. The technologies that can provide this are wide-ranged, and include standard QR codes or advanced GPS technology built into a recording device.
- An AR platform. The platform itself read data from the camera or other input device and overlays digital images and information over that data. In more advanced platforms, that can include using real time data from the surrounding environment
As these basic technologies have become more sophisticated over time, the ways that AR can use location and environment data to integrate digital objects only becomes more refined.
With these basic technologies, you can develop augmented reality that works along three primary paradigms:
- Recognition: This uses “markers” (like landmarks or QR codes) to overlay relevant information on a real-world image. For example, in a 2009 issue of Esquire, users with related software, could scan the barcode of the magazine and the cover model (Robert Downey Jr.) would appear in a video that appeared over the viewer.
- Location: Location-based AR software uses GPS and coordinates that data with compass direction, movement tracking, and image recognition to overlay digital objects on a real-world location. Pokémon Go is a good example of this kind of AR.
- SLAM: Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) uses sensors in the device to gather information and map out the surroundings for the most accurate AR integration available. The SLAM method is often used in robotics for autonomous steering, and it helps AR platforms develop better awareness of their surroundings when making decisions about placing digital objects.
Who is Developing AR Technology?
As mentioned above, Google is one of the first primary developers of wearables and consumer-end AR technology. However, with the lack of success of Google Glass on the consumer markets, its impact is more historical than cultural.
In the consumer market, several developers (including Google, Apple, Facebook, and Snapchat) are developing AR in some capacity. While many of these companies are invested in AR, they are approaching it from the perspective of external devices like tablets and smartphones. The newest advancements in AR as of 2018 seem to be in wearables.
Microsoft has found success with the HoloLens, a wearable AR glass technology. Marketing HoloLens as a tool to “modernize your business with mixed reality”, Microsoft seems to be targeting professional and industrial clients by showcasing how AR can impact customer service, engineering work, and training in the field. That, along with its recent contract with the U.S. Army for 100,000 HoloLens units signals that Microsoft is starting to make significant inroads into the wearable and AR markets.
Other companies outside of the major software and hardware producers are also trying their hand at AR technology in some form or another. Magic Leap, developer of the Magic Leap One, market a new headset that integrates audio and visual cues to more accurately integrate the digital objects in the device with the surrounding environment.
The Future of Augmented Reality
As of 2017, investments in AR technology have passed $3 billion. More importantly, this level of investment is only going to increase as AR makes inroads into video games, industrial markets, and military use. There is clearly a demand for the augmented reality and, as new technologies emerge and established ones become more accurate and refined, that demand will only increase.
This article is just a broad overview of what augmented reality is and where it is coming into maturity. As new demand for AR expands into manufacturing industries as well as marketing, retail, healthcare, and consumer entertainment, so too will the next evolution of media consumption. At the edge of this evolution is a realization of many of the technologies that we’ve seen in science fiction movies for decades: digital images, holograms, interacting with us in real, context-aware and location-specific ways. But even before we get to the boundaries of sci-fi, we can readily see how AR is impacting how we train workers, and how specialists access information in the field.
The future is incredibly bright for AR, and it’s only getting brighter. So if your business is one that could benefit from augmented reality, then start considering how you might implement it into your business strategy.