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A Beginner’s Guide To… Augmented Reality

Published Aug 02, 2017 by Neil Cumins

Some people claim augmented reality could change the way we view the world. But what is it, how does it work, and is it really worth getting excited about?

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In 1996, as the internet surged in popularity, Nintendo released a computer game called Pokémon. This curious combination of card trading and fantasy adventure spawned various cartoons and card games, while a series of console games went down well with Pokémon’s largely young fanbase. Then last year, developers decided to celebrate Pokémon’s 20th anniversary by dabbling with a niche concept called augmented reality.

 

Pokémon Go Takes The Augmented Reality Cake

You know the rest. Pokémon Go was THE breakout hit of 2016, as people of all ages began hunting imaginary cartoon creatures and throwing virtual balls at them. What really distinguished this global phenomenon was the fact Pokémon’s universe was based on the real one. A player’s presence was GPS tracked on a cartoon map of real roads and landmarks, with water-based characters found beside actual ponds and lakes. When players tracked down a Pokémon, the smartphones and tablets used to hunt them through animated streets switched to camera modes, with cartoon creatures suddenly superimposed onto everyday surroundings.

This was many people’s first taste of augmented reality, and Pokémon Go’s instant success kick-started this fledgling industry. AR now has its own two-day summit in California, and industry observers have repeatedly upscaled their end-of-decade predictions for the sector’s value to a remarkable $100 billion. Blue-chip brands like Microsoft and Google are racing to develop dedicated AR hardware, while Samsung freely admit AR offers far more scope than the sensory-deprivation VR alternative. And retailers from Converse to IKEA have launched AR apps to display product information as you look at an item, or to demonstrate how furniture might look in your home by projecting to-scale 3D models.

 

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AR Possibilities … Who Knows?

Augmented reality blurs the boundaries between the real and virtual worlds. It uses sensors and digital projectors to display graphics on top of our surroundings, in real time and in direct response to user movements and actions. The combination of physical surroundings and animations is bolstered by haptic feedback (such as vibrations) and sounds; there are even rumors AR could one day incorporate odors. Anyone old enough to remember Smell-O-Vision from early 1960s cinemas may be skeptical, yet AR’s potential is limited only by our imagination. It’s not hard to envisage an AR recipe program, where a chef hovers beside you demonstrating how many herbs to chop while their aromas fill the air. And the scope for truly immersive gameplay might make today’s static screen-based games seem terribly dated.

Of course, projected graphics aren’t new. Cars and fighter jets have featured head-up displays for a long time. However, our love of smartphones and tablets provides a reassuringly familiar platform for AR users to get used to this new technology. Handheld devices are far better for AR than fixed monitors, though Iron Man-style headsets and glasses represent the obvious endgame. Sadly, from the flammable Samsung Galaxy Note 7 to the ill-conceived Google Glass concept, head-mounted hardware hasn’t enjoyed much success to date. It seems phones and tablets will be the breakthrough devices for AR, for anyone not already convinced by Pokémon Go’s trailblazing antics…

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