What is Augmented Reality?

March 25th, 2016
Virtual reality has become old news as a new and more exciting vision of the future takes its place. Augmented reality looks like something straight out of a science-fiction movie, with 3D holographic images and display screens beamed in front of users who are wearing little more than glasses. Instead of offering a hedonistic escape into artificial dimensions, augmented reality promises to enhance everyday living by adding information-rich holographic content to our existing lives.

Augmented reality involves the integration of virtual computer-generated objects with the everyday physical world. Related to a more general concept known as mediated reality, this vision of the future involves computer-generated sensory input that is designed to work with the real-world environment. Instead of replacing the physical world, augmented reality functions in real-time within the limitations of physical space.

Augmented reality is already starting to make commercial waves, with Microsoft shipping an early version of its augmented reality headset HoloLens and start-ups such as Meta, Magic Leap, and Atheer also getting ready to enter the market. While the most exciting developments are still a few years away, when launched, we are likely to see users interacting with an array of holographic images and screens.

If augmented reality takes off like many expect, we will see a new form of computing that changes not just how we use technology, but how we interact with the world around us. Even more revolutionary than the touchscreen technology that continues to supersede the mouse and keyboard, augmented reality will bring the world of technology closer than ever before. According to Meta CEO Meron Gribetz, this technology is “an extension of your mind because it is built on the principles of your mind.”

According to Greg Kipper, author of 'Augmented Reality: An Emerging Technologies Guide to AR', augmented reality is much more practical than purely virtual environments. “Augmented reality is going to have a lot more practical applications simply because there are a lot more people out there who interact with things in the real world.” said Kipper, adding “When you first see an augmented reality demonstration, you say, ‘Hey, this is great', and then when you actually get it, you realise it’s not quite what you saw in the video.”

Meta has plans to use its own workers as lab rats, with all computer screens to be removed from the company’s offices in Redwood City by March 2017. Instead, employees will use virtual screens that are seen and touched through Meta 2 headsets, the likes of which will eventually go into commercial production. Magic Leap are another start-up creating waves, with this Florida company linked to tech-giant Google. Magic Leap has been in the news lately after releasing flashy videos showing a virtual whale leaping out of a gymnasium floor before splashing down and disappearing.

Along with being an entertainment tool, augmented reality could also provide a powerful educational and commercial interface. People will be able to reach into their holographic screens, pulling out 3D objects to study them or inspect them before making a purchase. Even communication will be changed forever, with phone calls becoming obsolete as conversation participants appears as holograms that can exchange documents and data in real-time. While most of these developments are still a few years away, augmented reality could make the big splash that virtual reality was never quite able to make.

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