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What is augmented reality? A guide to the new digital frontier


Augmented reality is the golden child in most tech companies’ eyes, with everyone from Microsoft and Apple to IKEA and Gucci investing in the tech.

But, with it sounding very similar to its big sister, virtual reality, you may be struggling to figure out what exactly it is.

Here to help we’ve created this guide detailing what augmented reality (AR) is, including what hardware it currently runs on and what surprises tech companies use it for in the near future.

How is augmented reality different to virtual reality?

There are currently multiple definitions describing what augmented reality is, but the best we’ve seen comes from the Merriam Webster dictionary, which describes it as:

“An enhanced version of reality created by the use of technology to overlay digital information on an image of something being viewed through a device (such as a smartphone camera).”

The tech effectively renders a tweaked view of reality that includes virtually rendered elements that sit in tandem with the user’s real world view. Phones do this using cameras to render things like Pokemon into the user’s surroundings, as demonstrated in the image below.

Headsets like Microsoft Hololens take an alternative approach, issuing dedicated hardware to offer a more immersive augmented view of the world, which the user can interact with using their hands.

Simpler solutions exist, from the likes of IKEA, that let you see how an item the store is selling would look in one of your rooms, using your laptop or phone’s cameras.

This is very different to virtual reality, which aims to drop people into completely virtual environments using headsets, like the Oculus Quest or HTC Vive.

What augmented reality glasses are there?

The majority of AR experiences are currency enjoyed using smartphones or laptops. They use cameras to render an augmented reality view onto the devices’ screen. This is how popular AR experiences, like Pokemon Go, work.

In the past companies like Bosch and Epson have experimented with AR creating glasses featuring the tech. But these have been firmly focussed on enterprise and heavy industry user cases, offering things like diagnostics or guidance tools for engineers.

Google was one of the first companies to attempt to bring AR to the masses when it started selling a prototype of Google Glass in 2014. These were custom glasses with a small, but very visible screen and camera attached. The company never released a final version, and stopped selling Glass to consumers in 2015 after privacy concerns emerged. But during its brief public release the product had numerous consumer services, including rudimentary real time translation and star mapping applications.

MindRDR uses thought control with Google Glass

Microsoft followed this up developing and unveiling its first-generation Hololens in 2016. The device was initially marketed for a variety of uses, with the original demo showing an unnamed augmented reality shooting game that saw players battle a series of invading monsters using the headset. However, the device never received a full release. Microsoft re-targeted the platform to enterprise customers with the launch of Hololens 2 in 2017.

Microsoft HoloLens 2 hands on

Outside of this the only augmented reality glasses we’ve seen are generally prototypes. Intel showed off a series of proof of concept AR glasses, the most recent of which carried the codename Vaunt in 2018, but never seriously pursued the project, or gave any indication it planned a full consumer release.

There are ongoing rumblings that Apple plans to release an AR headset. CEO Tim Cook praised AR as being more “mass market” than VR in a 2016 interview with Buzzfeed. The Information this year reported Apple is working on a $3000 AR headset that will run tethered to iPhones. The information is far from official, but the price would indicate the device is a proof of concept for developers, rather than a consumer product.

Older rumours have reported the firm is working on a more consumer focused Apple Glass product, but there is little evidence to support these rumblings outside of sporadic tweets and unsubstantiated reports from bloggers. We’re expecting Apple’s main AR efforts to relate to its iPad and iPhone line, with early reports suggesting the fabled iPhone 13’s rear camera will feature improved augmented reality capabilities.

Are there any augmented reality games available now?

There are currently a number of AR games available on iOS and Android. These include global phenomena such as Pokemon Go and Harry Potter Wizards Unite.

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