How does augmented reality work?

In the last few years virtual reality has been making big leaps. A lot of people have been eager to experience it themselves. The feeling and quality of the immersion can be quite fascinating to some. Elon Musk once said if we as humans are already so far with virtual reality, what are the odds that we ourselves are not living in a virtual world? "There's a one in billions chance we're in base reality" Musk said. Like so, an obvious distinction between what is real and what is virtual has increasingly become opaque to many. Virtual reality in the future will likely become indistinguishable from reality. While this might have a lot of applications, most people would rather benefit from this type of technology in a way that would make their day-to-day real life better instead of substituting it with a virtual one. Many have not realized this but for a long time already we have been living in a time that combines the real world with virtual reality: augmented reality. It might not be quite obvious to some, but at this current age our lives have been greatly improved by augmented reality.

What is augmented reality?

If you still don’t know how augmented reality has the ability to improve the lives of everyone here are a few examples that will make it clear.

  • You are watching your favorite football game on TV. At one point a player shoots the ball and for a brief movement the ball enters the goal while a player from the opposite teams kicks it back out. The referee is not sure what happened and resorts to a replay from HD cameras to see if the ball was inside or not. The game on screen also has a small box displaying the time, and the scores for each team.
  • You want to send a goofy picture to one of your friends or to the people who are following you on social media. Showing your tongue is not enough so you open Snapchat or any other similar applications and you take a selfie using one of the many ‘filters’ which transforms your face to scary looking one or to one with animal ears and noses.
  • You are in a new city traveling. You are hungry and you have no idea where to go, you fire up Layar, Yelp, Google Maps or similar apps and you search for “vegetarian restaurants”. The apps give you recommendations and the location of relevant restaurants on a map.
  • Down a couple of years, you are in one of your favorite museums. Next to each display there is a code you can scan with your phone. Upon scanning the code you are presented with text, picture, videos or other information concerning the artwork. Handy if you don’t want to wait in line for 3 people to read the usual text on didactic panels.

Displaying Augmented Reality

As mentioned before AR is a combination of reality and virtual reality, some might call it ‘mixed reality’. This means is that for us to see AR, it must be displayed in a way that mixes reality with virtual aspects. From the examples just shown you could have an idea already how some augmented reality is displayed. From example 1 it is clear that it’s simply using your TV screen. No fancy equipment involved, the replays and game scores are displayed directly to your TV screen. From the other examples it is all via your mobile device. Again nothing really fancy involved with using your mobile device screen to display the AR. Most applications of AR have actually been through the use of cellphones and other mobile devices, consequently there are plenty of AR apps already available for consumers to download. The future does look promising for different ways of implementing AR. Similar to the Heads-Up-Display (HUD) fighter pilots use, there are many startups who are trying to use similar, but downsized approach of displaying AR. There are many ‘smart glasses’ in development with a few showing a lot of potential. Furthermore, in the future we will probably see the implementation of AR technology in things like car windshield, telescopes and other things that people usually look through.

Augmented Reality Tracking

Sometimes the technology of AR uses your surroundings to know what and where to display whatever it has to display. There are many ways this could be done. To lead you in the right direction Google Maps uses your GPS location. This might work for navigation but not it usually doesn’t work for other AR implementations. There are many applications which can recognize its surroundings using your device camera. Applications like Snapchat uses special software that recognizes faces. The application Amikasa recognizes floors, walls, doors and windows and accurately measures their size so you can virtually put in furniture in your room to see how they would look like before buying them. These are examples of markerless tracking. Markerless tracking is difficult to perfect but the one with the most potential for future applications. In some cases the complexity of markerless tracking is not needed. Some apps are designed to recognize specific codes or markers. One benefit of using markers is that tracking is much smoother and/or faster. Some apps therefore are designed to recognize specific markers. You have probably seen many QR codes or other barcodes that looks similar. These barcodes tend to lead to websites, where then text, videos, pictures and other information is shown, just as shown in example 3 at the beginning of the article. To scan QR codes you will need to have a QR scanner installed on your phone.

Augmented reality applications ready for download

There are quite a few applications already waiting to be downloaded. A quick online search will show you the dozens of other AR applications that are available. For example, except from the ones already mentioned you have already probably heard about Pokémon Go and Google Translate. You could also check out the list of our 10 favorite AR applications for your mobile device here.

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