Innovation That Matters

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Tech Explained: Augmented Reality

Tech Explained

As part of our new series Tech Explained, we bring you up to speed with the concept of Augmented Reality.

One of the most talked-about innovations today is augmented reality (AR). While virtual reality (VR) completely immerses the user in a simulated environment, AR acts as a layer between the user and the real world. It adds to (augments) the real world by layering images and sound on top of it. Unlike VR, augmented reality does not need a cumbersome headset to work. In fact, this ability to add to the real world while users are on the go is one of the things that makes AR so exciting for so many companies.

Augmented reality is essentially a mobile computing platform. In order to work, the AR software needs a camera; motion sensors, so it can determine where it is in relation to the surroundings; and a portable processor and power to run the software. The idea is that, instead of Googling for information on a smartphone or computer, the answer just pops up – overlaid onto the real world. But what does it pop up on? This is the second part of AR – there needs to be some way of overlaying the computer-generated information onto what we can already see. There are many ideas for the best way to achieve this. One is the use of smart glasses. So far, these have not proved popular, but better headsets and glasses are being developed all the time. Researchers are also working on contact lenses with built-in computer displays, which could superimpose images and web pages directly onto the wearers field of vision.

However, because most people already have smartphones, these have become the focus for many new AR apps. The apps use the phones’ own cameras, GPS and processing power to operate. Users point their phone camera at the world, and information about what they are seeing pops up on the screen. The uses for this type of AR are almost endless. For example, Kabaq allows restaurant diners to view their food before they order; ioxp brings instruction manuals to life before a workers’ eyes; and RoomAR shows users what a piece of furniture will look like in their home, before they buy.

These types of app are just the tip of the AR iceberg. In fact, many tech companies are betting that in the future AR glasses or headsets will replace much of the functionality of smartphones and PCs. Researchers are also working on incorporating gesture control into AR. This will allow users, for example, to point to an item in a store, and have information about that item pop up on their headset.