Imagine a future where the physical and digital intermingle in our daily lives seamlessly. A world where you can play a real game of poker with holographic cards and chips, and bring the tip of a mountain to the centre of your living room. This is a future of augmented reality.
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A technology that allows computer-generated information (in the form of images and videos) to appear and interact within the physical world, augmented reality enhances our environment, so that the virtual complements and combines with the natural.
While virtual reality focuses on constructing entirely made-up settings (which are able to mimic the real world or transport users to a fantastical one), augmented reality blends the two together. With major companies like Facebook and Intel investing more into the development of the technology, BBC has estimated that the AR market could reach a whopping value of about S$220 billion by 2024.
Despite only gaining traction as a mainstream technology in recent years, AR is far from being a new innovation. Way before Snapchat’s fancy filters, certain photo-taking apps have been using AR to superimpose virtual stickers and backdrops over its physical users, despite glitching up often with poor image quality.
Its inception extends back as far as 1974 when an American computer researcher and artist, Myron Krueger, constructed an “artificial reality” facility known as the Videoplace that used cameras and projectors to create an interactive semi-virtual space.
At that time, there wasn’t a name for this technology. The official term, augmented reality, was only coined in 1990 by Tom Caudell, a researcher at Boeing. The development of the AR technology was concentrated in the aircraft industry at the start of the 90s, with the creation of Virtual Fixtures (regarded as the first fully immersive AR system) in 1992 for the US Air Force. The brainchild of Louis Rosenberg, it is an upper-body suit that allows its users to control and manipulate machines from a remote environment.
In 1999, the Battlefield Augmented Reality System (BARS) was created for the military. It simulates a 3D battlefield, using a wearable computer, a wireless network, and a head-mounted gadget that displays superimposed images over the user’s field of view. The same year saw AR integrated into a NASA spacecraft as well, where digital map data is projected onto the pilot’s screen.
By 2000, AR has moved into more mainstream uses. An example is the ARToolKit, a computer tracking library designed by Hirokazu Kato that superimposes virtual images on a video camera. As newer technologies emerged over the years, ARToolKit continued to innovate, eventually bringing AR to web programmes in 2009. Today, it remains a mainstay of the AR industry, an indispensable tool for building AR applications.
One of the most widespread uses of AR currently, at least among the younger generation, is through Snapchat, a mobile photo and video-sharing app. It features lenses (a simplified version of AR) that can recognise your face and superimpose a “mask” over it, so you can transform into a cartoon version of yourself with larger eyes and rosier cheeks that pukes a rainbow when you open your mouth. It also released Lens Studio, an AR developer tool for desktops, in Dec 2017 that allows anyone to create their own AR lenses.
A similar innovation is Google’s AR stickers, which allow you to paste 3D stickers (such as Star Wars and Stranger Things characters, and floating texts) into your camera’s pictures and videos. You can even manipulate them within the frame before you snap or record them. However, it’s an app that’s only available in Pixel and Android 8.1 phones at the moment.
As far as gaming goes, the most recent app that catapulted AR officially into the mainstream market is none other than Pokémon Go, the creators of which are also working on a Harry Potter version of the game, as announced in Nov 2017.
Apple has also released its ARKit, which allows users to develop AR apps for iOS devices. Various apps that have been created include one that lets you see how IKEA products look in your apartment, one that places life-size cars in your garage, as well as a fitness game that overlays virtual running obstacle courses in your physical environment.
Taking the hot topic technology to the next level is Magic Leap One, a highly anticipated product that’s set to be released sometime in 2018. Developed by Magic Leap (a AR and VR-focused startup established by Rony Abovitz and backed substantially by Google), it takes the form of a futuristic pair of goggles that makes you look like a time traveller with alien-like bug eyes. It’s plugged into an “external computer” that resembles a walkman, and includes a separate remote.
Perhaps the most intriguing feature though is its ability to remember virtual spatial data. As it says on the official website, users can “place a virtual TV on the wall over your fireplace and when you return later, the TV will be right where you left it”.
As innovation climbs in the AR field, it’ll see further applications in every single sector, from education and healthcare, to advertising and fashion, revolutionising the way we live and interact with reality. VR and AR will merge to create a totally immersive sensory experience that will elevate and expand the perimeters of our physical realities. Virtual information will be accessible outside of physical computers. The possibilities are quite literally endless.
What’s more, many AR-driven scenarios from science fiction have already turned into fact. And with the leaps and bounds we’re making, the future just might be nearer to us than we think. But if there’s one thing that’s for certain, the AR technology is no fad that’s going to fade away any time soon.