Augmented Reality – What is it?

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If you haven’t yet heard the term Augmented Reality, it’s likely you are familiar with an application of the technology. Perhaps the best known application is Pokémon Go, the smartphone app that took the world by storm last July and brought AR into the public’s consciousness.

Augmented reality, or AR, is a live view of a real-world environment that includes digital elements that “augment” the view. For example, Pokémon Go places animated characters in a smartphone camera’s display for the user to capture. The digital elements can include computer-generated graphics, video and sound.

AR technology enhances the user’s current perception of reality rather than replace it with another. By contrast, virtual reality (VR) replaces the real-world environment with a simulated one.

AR has been used in movies for years, where the protagonist sees the world with computer-generated graphics superimposed in their field of view. A good example is the 2009 movie Avatar.

Even before Pokémon Go, many people may have tried a type of AR without realizing it, on the popular app Snapchat. Its filters, overlay masks and other animations on users’ faces as they take pictures of themselves.

These are early forms of AR, and we are excited to see where it goes to next.

How Does Augmented Reality Work?

The type of augmented reality you are most likely to encounter uses a range of sensors-including a camera-plus computer components and a display device to create the illusion of virtual objects in the real world.

Smartphone apps account for the majority of AR apps released to date. That’s because they already have all the necessary components are the most commercially viable platforms for augmented reality applications. Also, smartphones have GPRS which obtains information about geographical locations, which can be overlaid with tags.

In general, an AR device looks for a particular target. This can be anything, but usually it’s a two-dimensional image printed on something such as a movie poster or a magazine cover. Once the AR application recognizes the target via the camera it processes the image and augments it in some way with pictures, video and/or sound. For example, you may see the characters in the movie poster spring to life and perform a scene from the movie.

By using smart algorithms and other sensors such as accelerometers and gyroscopes the device keeps the augmented elements aligned with the image of the real world. For example, as long as the user looks at the poster through the window of the display they will see the augmented reality video, instead of the plain vanilla 2D poster image.

Using a smartphone or tablet computer as a “magic window” into the augmented world is just one way to relay this digital info. There are many other ways.

One is to project the digital imagery directly onto a physical object. This is known as projection mapping and can be used to striking effect. For example, the Dyadic Mano-a-Mano uses projectors and Microsoft Kinect sensors to provide multiple users with 3D digital imagery projected directly onto the environment. The users don’t need to wear equipment or use any special devices. Interaction with this system is highly natural and intuitive.

The difference between augmented reality and virtual reality is the level of immersion. Basically, VR replaces the real world while AR enhances it.

Virtual reality is based on a complete simulation of a real-world environment, which the user can explore and interact with by means of a head-mounted display (HMD) and an input device, such as a data glove. The user is immersed completely in the virtual environment.

With augmented reality, the user sees the real world but with the addition of computer-generated images, which are overlaid on real objects in the real-world environment.

With AR beginning to proliferate across a variety of consumer applications, educators have begun to evaluate the potential of this new technology for learning. One presentation by two academics in 2010 describes how augmented reality can provide a rich contextual environment for learning. Educational applications of the technology include skills training; discovery-based learning, and modelling objects.

Thanks to technologies such as augmented reality, the way we work with computing devices and think about the divide between digital and analog reality is likely to change in the coming years.

Now is the time to start experimenting with augmented reality. Go to your smartphone’s app store and search for AR apps. There are plenty to try.

Additional resources:

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