Living inside a digital reality has always seemed like the stuff of science fiction. From interacting with pixels to touching holograms, interacting with the digital in the realm of the real world has been a point of fascination in movies and TV for decades. And although these may seem like far off dreams, the reality is that these actions are actually much closer to our lives than they seem. In fact, for many people, augmented reality has become a part of daily life.
What is Augmented Reality?
Augmented reality, also known as AR, is the interaction and overlay of digital objects into the real world, usually through a smartphone screen. If you’ve played the mobile game Pokémon Go and tried to catch a Pokémon using your phone, then that’s augmented reality. It’s different from virtual reality because of one thing: instead of digital objects existing in a digital world, augmented reality features digital objects that you can interact with in the real world.
Well, in a manner of speaking— for now, interactions are limited to smartphone screens, although researchers at MIT previewed a projector-based augmented reality system called SixthSense in 2009. While SixthSense may have been scrapped, there are still dozens of other ways that augmented reality can and has made an impact on our world and society.
Of course, you can’t talk about augmented reality without talking about what popularized the technology and brought it out into the mainstream: smartphone games. The hugely successful Pokémon Go mobile app of Niantic Games was a smash hit when it was released in 2016, and still continues to pull quite a following.
It was one of the first games to make use of augmented reality that did so in a way that was both intuitive and fun: users had to “catch” Pokémon in the “real world” by holding up their smartphones, where a Pokémon and Pokéball would usually be featured against a backdrop captured by their phone cameras. Players could also act as real life Pokémon trainers thanks to being able to walk around and earn points thanks to distance covered (and monitored by GPS), or go to Pokémon hotspots in the real world where they had higher chances of catching more Pokémon. Certain locations in neighborhoods and cities were turned into Pokémon gyms, where players could “battle” other players for mastery of the territory.
While Pokémon Go was the first, it certainly wasn’t the last. Niantic Games recently released a Harry Potter AR app called Wizards Unite, where players could act as wizards or witches in the beloved franchise. Building off of the success of Pokémon Go, the app makes use of more or less the same technology: allowing players to interact with their surroundings within the context of the game. While the game’s debut may not have been as explosive as Pokémon Go’s, one thing’s for sure: AR tech is here, and it’s here to stay.
Augmented reality also has a place in education, with Medium featuring it as one of the emerging fields in AR use. Using AR in the classroom might not be as widespread as proponents wish it were, but there are many benefits that make AR in education a probability.
First off, augmented reality can add a new, more interactive dimension to learning. Kids can use apps like AR Anatomy to learn more about the human body in a way that isn’t static or typical. It’s also easy to demonstrate and distribute, as students with smartphones can simply download the required apps and get started with learning. Finally, AR introduces the concept of collaboration, with students being more involved in the learning process and more likely to help each other succeed in worksheets and exams.
The relationship between augmented reality and healthcare isn’t actually as recent as some people think. As early as the 1960s, doctors have been using simulators with 3D images to help them refine their diagnoses and improve their surgical skills. Technology and healthcare have always progressed side by side, with many advancements in both fields being influenced by the other, so it’s no surprise that augmented reality has been doing the same thing.
According to Susan Fourtané at Interesting Engineering, augmented reality could be the future of medicine. Thanks to improvements in AR tech, doctors may now be able to perform complicated procedures like brain and reconstructive surgeries more easily, as well as make diagnoses faster and more accurately. Several healthcare-related programs like ProjectDR are slowly making their way out of testing, and may be a feature in doctors’ offices sooner rather than later.
One of the earliest apps to make use of augmented reality in daily activities was Dutch-based app Layar, which allowed users to superimpose different layers and graphics on a live camera feed of a restaurant or establishment. Making use of both the phone’s GPS capabilities and information from sites like Google and Wikipedia, users could simply hold up their phones to a restaurant and immediately see relevant information such as menus and reviews.
Released in 2009, Layar was simply a first glimpse of what could be possible with AR tech. For example, for new apartment owners Swedish retail giant Ikea has IkeaPlace, which makes use of Apple’s ARKit technology and allows buyers to scan their homes and see if furniture items will fit. Travelers are able to make use of AR technology on the go, with Gatwick airport’s augmented reality app winning numerous awards thanks to its intuitive design and ability to help passengers navigate using AR. Even makeup retailer Sephora has its own AR app called Virtual Artist, which allows customers to try on makeup looks and shades before purchasing.
As augmented reality technology grows, so too does its list of uses. With the proliferation of smartphones and the increasing sophistication of both AR and other types of tech, the question of how to adapt AR to our daily lives could be is now a matter of degree, rather than possibility. When it comes to expanding realities, there’s nothing better.
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Daniel Ling is a tech writer, gamer, and cat dad. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Information Technology an indeterminate number of years ago, worked for a while in the IT industry, switched to startups, and now does writing in his spare time. If you want to catch up on the latest gossip about gadget releases, he probably already knows it, and if he doesn’t then he can at least Google it pretty quick. If you challenge him to a Star Wars trivia battle, you will lose.