Origins of Augmented Reality
To augment something means to make it greater by adding more. The word ‘augment’ is a perfect fit to define the ever-widening scope of software that aims to change how we interact with our surroundings, known today as augmented reality (AR).
AR has existed in laboratory settings since the 1960s, but has seen impressive technical progression in the last few years. AR made the leap into public spaces a few decades ago, with rides at amusement parks or 4D movie theaters that use water, air, sound, lights, or movement to add immersive levels to an experience.
The real explosion of AR in recent years is due to the processing power of today’s smart devices. The mobility of smartphones untethers AR, allowing augmented experiences in exciting new spaces.
People sometimes confused augmented reality with virtual reality (VR). While they do share pieces of development history, the two aren’t the same. Virtual reality creates immersion in an artificial environment, but augmented reality increases or heightens an experience in the real world by layering additional information atop it.
AR provides information as simple as enhancing a shopping experience with augmented coupons to overlaying complex instructions on a patient’s body to guide a surgeon through life-saving medical procedures.
The diverse range of uses for AR, from the consumer to the commercial level, makes it appealing for just about any industry. VR and AR technology hit a high point with investments estimated at $3 billion in 2017.
The Big Two: Categorizing Augmented Reality
There are many ways to go about augmenting the world around us, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Current day AR applications can be split into two categories: marker-based or marker-less.
Markers are distinct visual patterns that cameras can easily recognize and process. Because markers are unique from the environment around them, they can be discovered and scanned by devices using a live camera view and code that recognizes the marker.
Scanning a marker triggers an augmented experience, whether it be an object, text, or animation, to appear on the device. Tracking plays an important part in this type of AR, meaning that either the marker or camera can be moved without distorting or ending the augmented effect.
See an example of marker-based AR in the MABU Christmas Card, made using the Layar app.
Marker-based AR has rapidly grown in popularity because of decreasing costs of entry and the ubiquity of smartphones and other smart devices. These electronics can nowadays easily handle the lower processing requirements for these types of use cases.
This style of AR is more versatile than marker-based AR; it does not need an image cue to deploy. Instead, it relies on positional information gathered from a device’s camera, GPS, digital compass and accelerometer.
These data inputs build an understanding of 3D space in a process known as Simultaneous Localization and Mapping – or SLAM for short. SLAM places content directly into your view of the world and ‘sticks’ it to the environment. The video below provides a simple example of what marker-less AR looks like.
SLAM algorithms bring augmentation to new spaces, though mostly limited to flat surfaces. While this sounds lackluster, it should be mentioned that SLAM is still in its early years of development in AR applications.
Though more complex, marker-less is proving to be a rising choice for high-end AR developers. Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore are software development kits released in recent years that push the scope of marker-less AR.
Check out the video below on the Apple Measure app (developed in the ARKit). Get it on your device to get a feel for marker-less AR!
Variations on Marker-less AR
While it uses many of the same sensors (GPS, compass, accelerometer) as marker-less AR, location-based AR ties augmentation to a specific place. Virtual objects or information are anchored to locations and then displayed according to a user’s inputs when entering that location. Pokémon GO is a popular example of this type of AR, but it also has practical applications like providing directions to nearby establishments or even full-scale tourist guides.
Advanced projectors can create immersive light forms or layer new information onto flat surfaces. This form of marker-less AR does not involve user-operated tech. Instead, it delivers a truly futuristic experience. Users guide through their manual inputs and the projector(s) respond through changing the light emitted. Projector-based AR works for practical purpose and to entertain, as the video below shows.