Augmented Reality Is Coming Fast

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Virtual reality (VR)—the use of computers to create a complete simulation of a human reality—has been an active concept since the early days of digital computing and a popular theme in science fiction for many decades. The idea became part of mainstream consciousness with the release of The Matrix in 1999, in which the protagonist turned out to be living in a simulation indistinguishable from the real thing.

Virtual reality dominated much of the conversation throughout the last few decades. But outside of gaming, VR has little immediate practical application. However, VRs lesser cousin, augmented reality (AR), seems poised to revolutionize many aspects of our digital life.

Unlike VR, AR does not attempt to entirely replace actual reality but rather to overlay useful information on top of our perceived world. Similar to VR, AR has long appeared in science fiction, but unlike VR, AR has practical applications, some of which have been apparent for decades. The “heads up” targeting display (HUD) in fighter jets is a simple form of AR that emerged in primitive forms as long ago as the 1940s. 

AR’s “Matrix moment” undoubtedly occurred last year with the release of Pokemon Go, an AR game that superimposed Pokemon animals onto the smartphone camera view.  Pokemon Go was downloaded more than 500 million times in 30 days. Indeed, Pokemon Go can claim to be the fastest-growing product or service of any type in all of history.

Attitudes toward Pokemon Go—and games, in general—are mixed, but it’s interesting to contemplate the effect of this AR game on human activity levels. Pokemon Go can only be played by exploring the world on foot. Game designer and author Jane McGonigal points out that by provoking a surge in physical activity, Pokemon Go added an estimated 2.8 million years of human life expectancy in its first 60 days of play.

Although Pokemon Go may turn out to be a short-lived phenomenon, it does provide useful demonstration of how powerful augmented reality can be—even without specialised devices. It had originally been believed that AR would only take off when specialised glasses were employed. Early enthusiasts demonstrated heads up displays on helmets or glasses allowing a full-time augmented reality experience. Google Glass—though not strictly speaking an AR device—attempted to provide some of this experience. However, Google Glass fell short of delivering on its promise, partially because of concerns around the “always-on” front-facing camera. It turns out even Millennials dislike being photographed 24x7.

We’ve learned that the modern smartphone has enough technology to provide a compelling AR experience. The combination of a compass, GPS, and dual directional cameras allows AR software to superimpose information on the smartphone screen. While it still seems likely that some form of specialized wearable device will be needed to fully exploit AR, Pokemon Go makes it clear that a popular AR-driven experience can still be had on the humble smartphone.

Most of the large software and hardware companies have big investments in AR. Apple’s ARKit allows developers to create rich AR experiences for the iPhone and iPad and the iPhone 8 is strongly rumored to include a dedicated chip and 3D laser to enhance the AR experience. The Twitter feed ?@madewithARKit shows off some pretty impressive early ARKit applications.

Microsoft HoloLens is an ambitious hardware device touted as a “mixed reality” computer. It allows the projection of 3D images onto the user’s field of view. At $4,000 per unit, they are not likely to be commodity consumer devices, but do demonstrate some of the amazing possibilities for rich AR.

AR seems set to be a very significant part of our digital experience moving forward. Significant AR applications for smartphones should be commonplace within a few years, while specialized hardware such as the HoloLens will become increasingly pervasive. It might not be the Matrix, but I’m definitely looking forward to augmenting my reality!