Augmented Reality is one of the biggest emerging trends in tech right now.
Back in 2015, there were just 200 million AR users. But according to statista, we are set to see that explode to around 2.4 Billion users by 2023.
In fact, many experts are calling AR the future of communication after seeing significant upgrades in both smartphones, wearable devices, and ideas of how AR can help improve our daily lives and work processes.
But what exactly is augmented reality? Not only that, but how will it affect you and your business? That’s what we’re going to cover today.
In this guide we’re going to break down what AR is and how it works, give you some mind blowing real life examples, go through the leading devices that you can buy, and we’ll even weigh up the pros and cons of the industry.
You can jump around to any section below.
Table of Contents
- What is Augmented Reality?
- What is the difference between AR, VR and MR?
- How can we use AR (with examples)
- What devices are available?
- What are the pros and cons of AR?
What is Augmented Reality?
So what is Augmented Reality?
Well in technical terms, augmented reality is ‘an immersive overlay set in the real world’. We’re ‘augmenting’ or adding to what is already there.
By using either a smartphone or ‘smart wear’ glasses, you can look through your device and see the real world around you, but then also see superimposed imagery and digital elements on top.
Rather than take you out of the environment, they complement it.
How do you mean?
Well how about a sat nav that gives you directional arrows to show you where to go while walking around a new city? Or perhaps a Pokemon appearing behind your kitchen counter that you can capture and play with? That’s right – the hugely popular Pokemon Go is a prime example of AR in action.
Maybe you work from home and want to replace your tiny laptop monitor with a series of screens that appear while wearing your glasses, and disappear when you no longer need them?
Or maybe you’re on a factory floor assembling a car engine but need some help or further training? Well rather than go back and forth to a training manual, you can instead see a floating 3D model of the engine and what needs to be completed on it.
It all sounds like science fiction right? Well you can actually do all this and more with augmented reality right now. In fact, the opportunities are only limited by our imagination.
What is the difference between Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and Mixed Reality?
You might have heard some of these terms before and are a little confused about the difference between them.
So let’s break them down a little further:
Virtual Reality is an entirely virtual experience.
It’s set in a virtual environment away from the real world.
The user places goggles on their head that blocks out all external stimuli, with the goal to immerse the user in that new environment.
You may have seen Playstation do something similar with their XR device.
The player can wear the headset and then be ‘inside’ their favourite video game. The player turns their head and they see what the character sees, from their point of view. Pretty cool right?
The main issue with VR is the need for a secure physical location.
Because you can’t see your real life surroundings, you have to remain stationary or be in a controlled and safe environment so that you don’t walk into something by accident.
Augmented Reality is set in the real world, with enhanced digital effects.
Rather than blocking out all of your vision like VR, AR allows you to see the world around you at the same time as you see additional digital elements.
This is not only safer than VR, but it also means that you can move around or even change location and still use it, opening it up to far more applications.
AR is not just limited to goggles either. You can use handheld devices like a smartphone or tablet.
As long as the device has a camera to take a live feed of your location and then a screen of some kind to add in that overlay, then it can be used to create an augmented reality experience.
So to recap, virtual reality is a virtual world while augmented reality is our world with added digital elements and imagery.
So what’s mixed reality?
What Is Mixed Reality?
Mixed reality is the next step in augmented reality.
Original AR is simply overlaid digital elements or information. Mixed Reality is taking that one step further and making it so much more.
How? By allowing you to directly interact with those digital elements…
So let us explain.
Let’s go back to the new monitor example that we mentioned before. So, in the past you might be wearing your AR device and looking through the Heads Up Display and want to open up a web browser.
You would look through those goggles and you might see a screen in the corner of your view, showing the web browser or any other information that you asked for.
You turn your head and the image would always be off to that one side as your head turns.
Now this is great if you’re moving around a lot, or need your hands free, but what if you wanted to create a permanent screen for you to use? Would you still want it to move around the room with you, or stay in one place?
Well with mixed reality the AR digital elements can now recognise the environment that they are in. Set the screen to stay on your desk and that’s where it will always appear, even when you turn your head away.
Power down the device and turn it back on, and that monitor loads back up in the same place in your room. Even more amazing? You can now physically interact with that digital element directly.
With traditional AR you might have just an overlaid image, right? Well with mixed reality you can literally reach out and turn the screen off by hand just like an actual monitor.
How does this work?
Cameras in your smart device not only track your environment but can also watch your hand motions to see what they are doing and respond accordingly when your hand interacts with the digital elements.
It gets even better. Just a few years back and your smart devices would only recognise certain hand gestures that were pre-mapped to certain functions. Perhaps inching your fingers together to make something smaller for example, or placing your palm out flat to hold something.
Well thanks to improvements in artificial intelligence, your device can now start to track and learn your own unique hand motions and respond based on how you uniquely use your device.
You can even move objects and pass them across to other MR users in the room like they were a real physical object.
As you can see, the applications and opportunities for AR and MR technology are astounding! Even crazier? We’re just getting started…
How can we use AR and MR?
So let’s look at a few real life examples of AR being used today:
Rather than sit in a training room or having to use an onsite manual, many companies are using AR to help train their workers live on site.
Not only does AR allow them to save time, but it also gives the employee a more intuitive learning experience.
How? Well instead of just looking at diagrams in a manual, they can see images overlaid on top of the thing they are working on.
On site further assistance
AR is being used at Volkswagen to help technicians assess a vehicle and where it needs to be repaired.
Called MARTA (Mobile Augmented Reality Technical Assistance), the tech can point their ipad at the vehicle and see realtime recommendations of what to work on.
So why not take it a step further? Instead of just training or programmed assistance, companies like Realwear are now working on live expert assistance.
The user can be onsite with their AR glasses and the expert can back in the office, but seeing what the user is seeing, and the offer customised advice to help them with their problems.
You can even set up a 2nd camera to show another angle or overview, or bring in multiple experts for a group call.
Better still? The expert can interact on their device at home and add notes or directions live, adding to what the user sees through their glasses!
It’s not just frontline work though. Companies are also looking at how to use AR to help with sales and design.
From Timberland offering AR clothing so their users can see what they would look like in any of their clothing…
Or Ikea’s AR app called ‘Place’ that allows users to take screenshots of their rooms, and then see what it would look like with any of Ikea’s furniture inside their room.
It even uploads to scale based on the room size, so you can see if the furniture fits or not!
Volkwagen clearly see the value in AR, and even uses it to help them manage their warehouses.
Their workers can use tablets or glasses to navigate through the warehouses, perform tasks and get up to the minute information on new deliveries or product locations.
Imagine you’re a pilot of an aircraft and the plane is on fire. The cabin fills up with smoke and so you put on your oxygen mask but you still can’t see the equipment to land the plane.
Pretty terrifying right? Which is why FedEx is working with ODG to create gas masks that have heads up displays inside of them.
This way the pilot can put on the mask and still see and land safely!
AR has been used in entertainment for years now, but it’s starting to see even more applications.
From being able to see added details in sport, to interactive colouring books for the kids.
Or even to create brand new sports! In Japan, a company called HADO has been pioneering AR sports.
Think dodgeball but the ball is digital and you can create lazer shields!
They already have entire leagues and sports teams.
We already mentioned the ability to use Google Maps and the like earlier, but imagine if you didn’t have to look down at your phone, but could instead see it through your smartglasses?
Meanwhile, Volkwagen is on here with their own built in AR HUD inside some of their vehicles, showing you speed, directions and even collision detection. This way the driver never has to look away from the road while using it.
The National Theatre in London now offers closed captions for their hard of hearing and deaf audience members, via AR devices.
The audience member puts on their provided smartglasses, and is able to see closed captions alongside the performance.
E-tips is an AR app designed to help tourists visiting Florence in Italy. They can view the city through their device, and be shown additional information or points of interest during their visit.
Meanwhile apps like Google Translate allow you to scan writing in other languages and see direct translations on your screen.
Marketers can now show AR billboards and custom ads to AR users as they walk through town.
Military and defence
The US Army is currently using AR to track its people in the field, so they can quickly assess threats and friendlies.
There are numerous medical advancements with AR so far, but here’s a great example. Accuvein helps doctors to track heat patterns in their patients so that they can find veins easier.
This tech actually raises the chance of them finding the vein on the first attempt by 350%.
As you can see, there are numerous ways that we can use AR to improve our daily lives.
So now you have an idea of what you can do with this, let’s have a quick look at what devices out there can use AR.
What devices can use AR?
There are two main types of augmented reality device on the market right now – either handheld, or wearable.
Now in terms of handheld, almost any new mobile device or tablet is capable of adding in AR software.
(As long as it has a camera and a screen so it can then show the overlaid digital assets)
The really exciting stuff is in the wearable markets. Why? Because smartwear not only allows you to have both hands free while using, but they can directly affect your environment for the entire time they are being worn for a more enhanced experience.
Here are some of the best wearable devices on the market (from companies you may never have heard of)
Retina scan to make sure you are the correct user, and measures distance between your eyes to adjust the imagery to fit your features!
Iristik Z1 Essential
There are plenty of pros. What about the cons of AR?
Right now the major issues with AR are all time based.
Although it’s growing fast, AR is still relatively early in its life cycle, and so product prices can be fairly steep. You can expect to pay anywhere from £500-£3000 per unit.
Also most manufacturers are focusing on b2b first instead of consumer models (some are not even selling outside of enterprise). Now this is actually a good thing in the long run because by focusing on b2b goals first it allows them to iron out any kinks and test new designs and ideas – all while improving and lowering the cost for when consumer models go live.
Finally there are some cross communication issues. Because the designs rely on different software and tech, it can mean that not every device works easily with other channels.
So let’s say that you want to offer remote assistance and bring in your team to help someone on site. The user calls up on their AR device using Zoom, but the expert only has Skype. Not only that but the team back at the head office only uses videoconferencing with Microsoft Teams.
Right now all of those devices don’t communicate properly.
Fortunately you can use a 3rd party tool like SimplyVideo which works as a buffer between each device and network.
It helps you to connect each different device and platform seamlessly and securely.
So yes there are a few issues with AR right now, but only as a consumer.
If you’re a business then you can start using AR almost right away.
A lot of the tech ideas are already in place for other industries saving them time and money, and can be incorporated into your industry also.
As for the general consumer?
AR is set to totally change our lives.
From how we learn, communicate, interact and more. It truly is set to be the new interface between human beings and their environment.