For some, it may be a hologram that lives in your mobile phone; for others, it's an interesting way to explore a city. It may be used as a tool for marketing products and services or for educating students. What is it?
It's augmented reality (AR), and for all its sci-fi sounding name, it isn't fiction, it's here. So what is this nifty technology and what could you do with it? We lay out the basics.
What Is Augmented Reality?
Augmented reality superimposes video, graphics, sound and other elements on real world things. As the name suggests, it aims to enhance the world around us and make it more interesting. To the uninitiated, just think about watching an NBA basketball game on television. The reality part is the ongoing game. This is augmented by the scores, tally and other information related to the game.
What is exciting about the latest incarnations of augmented reality is that it is no longer confined to the computer or television screen. It can now be used anywhere from atop your dining table to the Great Wall of China. Indeed, the whole world is a platform for augmented reality.
This means that you can be looking up at a building, then whip out your smartphone and check out information on what offices, restaurants and shops are inside. It's a cool twist to a technology that has been around for quite some time now – even though you maybe didn't know you were looking at it.
What Can It Do?
With the increasing use of smartphones and the increasing availability of mobile apps that feature augmented reality, it's difficult not to take notice of this technology's growing potential. More than this, many developers are now coming up with various uses for what in the past, was mostly just a cool application – not necessarily a useful one. That's why mobile, media, computing and gaming companies, among others, are jumping on the augmented reality bandwagon.
Although it was once relegated to entertainment, AR is increasingly being used for marketing and education. It's a great fit, because if this technology does anything, it gets people's attention and makes things more interesting. Take for instance the Layar mobile app. It allows users to interact with printed publications like magazines, essentially bringing them to life by allowing users to share content over social media, buy the products featured and interact with the content in a number of other ways. As our lives become increasingly digitized, this type of integration is becoming ever more important.
Augmented reality has also changed marketing. An early example is Lego's use of augmented reality, where the company showed people how its lego sets would look when built. Other applications make still and inanimate objects come to life. You can just train your phone camera on an augmented reality-enabled product and make that product come to life with graphics and videos. For retailers, this can be a way to show how a product can be used and advertise its features in real time.
A mobile site isn't even a requirement – just launch an AR application, point a camera at a product and AR could point out a video to watch, or ask potential customers to sign up for the company's newsletter or visit its website.
AR is also being used in education, to create learning experiences that are more immersive and interactive. Imagine being able to see the anatomy inside your own body, rather than trying to discover it in a textbook!
As you can see, there are a lot of applications for augmented reality technology. It is just a matter of how creative you can be and how much access you have to the materials and audiovisual elements you need.
So What's the Big Deal With AR?
Augmented reality is sure to revolutionize how people use mobile devices. In fact, it could change the game as much as touch screens and Internet connectivity did. It will also make it easier for people to search for content, replacing typing and speaking as a way of obtaining some types of information.
Like all new technologies, expect some growing pains with augmented reality. Look at how QR codes evolved. QR codes might seem ubiquitous today, but there was a time when people had no idea what they were and what to do with them – and research suggests many people are still at a loss. That suggests that it will take some time to educate people on what augmented reality is and how they can use it. In addition, it is much more difficult to come up with content for augmented reality. Most of the content available might be narrow and would only appeal to a specific set of users. (Read more about QR codes in An Introduction to QR Codes.)
So far, popular adoption of AR is sparse, except perhaps in Japan, whose population tends to be more tech savvy. People love to talk about AR's potential, but so far, it's only getting off the ground as consumers decide whether this is something that will be useful.
This is yet another part of the growing pains that augmented reality would have to face. Remember that people laughed when it was predicted that every home would have a computer. Or how about this 1987 ad from Apple that accurately predicts the technology that we are now taking for granted?
Better Than Fiction, Still Not Real
Augmented reality still seems like science fiction, but it's quickly becoming science fact. It adds a new dimension of reality to the world we see. But what remains to be seen is whether consumers will adopt this technology. This technology gets a lot of press for being cool, but that doesn't mean it's practical – at least not yet. So is AR just a fad, or the future of technology? That remains to be seen, but recent developments and adoption suggest it may be both.