Augmented reality is finally starting to unveil its potential. It could one day radically alter how we interface with computers.
With some big hits and misses in recent years, augmented reality is finally starting to unveil the potential it wields and how it could one day radically alter how we interface with computers.
The term “augmented reality” (AR) was coined back in 1990, by Boeing company researchers Thomas Caudell and David Mizell, who at the time were exploring experimental techniques of presenting information on altitude, direction and speed of the plane to the heads-up displays (HUDs) of fighter aircraft. Soon after proof of concepts by the military had commenced, commercial applications followed. AR, albeit rudimentary, first made its way into television in the early 90s. With the pace of technological innovation that gave birth to the Internet and smartphones, AR has been grabbing headlines in recent years, with many of the largest tech companies making massive bets on the technology.
The basic idea behind AR is to superimpose graphics, audio and other sensory enhancements over a realworld environment, with the 3D models projected directly onto physical things, all of it rendered in real-time.
Unlike virtual reality (VR) - which requires the user to fully immerse in an entirely virtual environment - AR maps out and uses the surrounding real-world environment to simply overlay digital information on top of it. As both virtual and real worlds inhabit the same space, users of augmented reality experience a new and improved natural world, where virtual information is used as a tool to provide assistance in everyday activities – ranging from a simple incoming email notification to potentially providing instruction on how to perform intricate surgical procedures.
From using photo filters on social media networks like Facebook or Snapchat that manipulate images in real-time to improving productivity, AR is rapidly growing in popularity for its ability to highlight certain features, enhance understandings and provide contextual and timely data, all the while remaining somewhere in the middle of the mixed reality spectrum, between the real and the virtual.
Most AR apps allow the user to see both synthetic and natural light - a feat achieved by overlaying projected images onto a pair of goggles or glasses, allowing the images and interactive virtual objects to appear as part of the environment.
Over the past decade, many labs and companies have been perfecting the underlying technology and building better gadgets that allow us to experience AR in all its glory.
In 2009, the MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces Group presented SixthSense, a device combining a mirror, smartphone, camera and a small projector. Although clunky and unpractical, the device hung from the user’s neck and the four sensor devices on the user’s fingers could be used to manipulate the images projected from the device. More importantly, it generated more interest in the technology, offering a glimpse into exciting possibilities just beyond the horizon.
In 2013, Google rolled out Google Glass, a significantly more accessible iteration of the technology, comprising a pair of glasses that displayed interactive 3D models on the user’s lens screen through a small projector and even responding to voice commands. Although lambasted by the media thanks to the wonky-looking form factor and limited use cases, causing Google to pull it from the marketplace in late 2015, it served as yet another historical milestone towards
“The growth of augmented reality (AR) applications in recent years can be attributed to solutions that allow consumers to visualise products and imagine what it might feel like to own the product or experience the service before actually purchasing it. As augmented technology becomes more sophisticated and the cost-saving and business applications expand, the demand and investment in AR will increase, “writes Bernard Marr in a recent Forbes article.
By far, AR’s biggest hit to date has been the 2016 game Pokémon Go, which became a worldwide sensation seemingly overnight, with over 100 million estimated users at its peak, according to CNET. At its core, the game allowed users to seek out and collect Pokémon characters that had been scattered around the real world, and to use these monster characters to do battle with other users locally. Forbes estimates that it ended up raking in over USD 2 billion in revenue for the Japanese developer, Niantic.
Interestingly, before Pokémon Go, nobody had considered using AR applications on a smartphone or a tablet. Nowadays, the tech is embedded in nearly every smartphone and tablet, making the technology much more accessible to the masses.
The demand for AR apps spiked in 2017, when Apple and Google released ARKit and ARCore software developer kits for iOS and Android respectively, allowing anyone with the necessary technical acumen to create their own AR apps.
The same year, Ikea introduced Ikea Place app, built using Apple’s ARKit technology, which allows the user to scan the room and design it by placing Ikea objects directly in the room.
Cosmetic company Sephora leveraged AR tech to allow customers to try different beauty products on the digital scan of their face. Even luxury brands like Rolex have jumped on the AR bandwagon, by creating an app where prospective buyers can try on various styles and models on their wrists.
As such, AR has quickly risen to become a powerful and novel way of boosting sales and provide customers a unique, memorable branded experience. According to Statista, the forecast market size for AR and VR technology will be over USD 200 billion by 2022.
Although the AR ecosystem is maturing quickly, there are still several obstacles to overcome, such as technological limitations, lack of standardization and high price tags.
“Today, we’re in a state of compromise with augmented and virtual reality devices. None of the existing systems give users a complete, bondless and immersive experience. Most of the systems lack a natural, wide field of view (FOV), have limited display resolution, low brightness, a short battery life and lacking 3D sensing capabilities. It will be another three to five years before we will experience true, unconstrained AR/ VR applications,” Alex Aharonov writes in Jabil.
One of the companies trying to solve some of these technological issues is Magic Leap, a secretive startup based in Florida, that after years of testing the tech and raising over USD 2 billion from investors such as Google, JP Morgan, Alibaba, and Warner Bros,. to name a few, finally announced that Magic Leap One Creator Edition - comprising a small, wearable computer and a pair of goggles –was finally hitting the shelves in August 2018, setting the entire tech industry in an uproar.
Alas, the virtually unlimited resources and years of lofty promises to revolutionise personal computing didn’t help Magic Leap escape the lukewarm media reception. The Verge’s Adi Robertson wrote a lengthy hands-on review of the device, which she described as a ‘ flawed glimpse’ at the potential of the technology.
“Based on an afternoon with Magic Leap, the Magic Leap One Creator Edition — which ships in the US today for USD 2,295 — is a functional, thoughtfully designed headset with some very real advantages over competitors like the Microsoft HoloLens.
But it doesn’t seem like a satisfying computing device or a radical step forward for mixed reality. Magic Leap’s vision is a compelling alternative to that of Silicon Valley’s tech giants. But there’s a baffling disconnect between its vast resources and parts of its actual product. I genuinely believe Magic Leap has given me a glimpse of the future of computing, but it might take a long time to reach that future, and I’m not sure Magic Leap will be the company that gets there first.”
Unveiled at Apple’s yearly media spectacle in mid-September, this year’s updated range of iPhones, too, have a strong focus on new artificial intelligencedriven chipsets, which promise to deliver strong augmented reality experiences – Apple even brought out former NBA star point guard Steve Nash to showcase HomeCourt, a new iPhone app that can detect a hoop and basketball to measure kinematics, trajectory, release times, and number of shots made. It certainly seems that Apple is doubling down on AR, to the extent that industry murmurings of an impending launch of an AR interface of some sorts are getting stronger and stronger.
Admittedly, while some of the current generation AR devices have not lived up to the hype, all of them have done their part in propelling the technology forward in one shape or another. And with many tech giants clearly carving out the ecosystem for their future devices, it seems to be only a matter of time until they finally deliver on their futuristic promises.
Above Left: Augmented Reality allows mobile devices to display useful information against real time images. Above: The Virtual Showroom app allows prospective buyers to try on various timepieces on their wrists from the comfort of their own homes. PHOTO: CHRONO24