A variation of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) is an enhanced version of a real-world environment that superimposes or blends interactive digital elements into physical objects. Although the concept may seem abstract, AR is much more tangible than VR since it still requires the user to interact with the real world, therefore, augmented through the use of a device that generates additional perceptual and sensory information (objects, sounds, smells, visual overlays, etc.).
Some early VR devices possess some elements that somewhat resemble AR, such as the famous Morton Heilig’s Sensorama (1957) or Ivan Sutherland’s Sword of Damocles (1968). The first one, in particular, was an “experience theater” which delivered sounds, vibrations and images to the viewer through a series of mechanical contraptions, so it may be argued that used some physical elements that are typical of AR. However, audiences could not really interact with it and it completely replaced reality rather than supplementing it in the form of a portable device.
The term “augmented reality,” as well as the first true device of this kind, was created back in 1990 by Boeing researcher Tom Caudell and his colleague David Mizell. The two scientists had to find a way to simplify the job of workers in the manufacturing factory who had to use large and expensive plywood boards to assemble the wiring for the 777 jetliner. These wooden diagrams were as long as 30 feet, and were used to thread and bundle the wires along pegs before they could be brought to the plane for installation. Caudell and Mizell devised a see-through display that could be worn on the head that superimposed computerized images of the airplane schematics to guide workers during the assembly process. They called this digital vision device “augmented reality,” and although the device wasn’t practical since it was too cumbersome for people to wear while working, it paved the way for other devices that quickly caught up later on.
Just two years later, Louis Rosenberg created Virtual Fixtures, the first AR system that was used by the U.S. Air Force. The device made use of a heads-up display (HUD) connected to two physical robot arms that the user could move through an upper-body exoskeleton that acted as a controller. The user saw the computerized robot arms in his visor, together with other computer-generated virtual overlays that simulated objects, barriers or guides existing in the real world.
Today, in less than 30 years, AR technology has made a huge leap forward both in terms of performance and usability as well — so much that these clunky early models look like hilarious sweded movie cardboard equivalents of the modern devices!