If you dodged real-world trash cans to chase virtual monsters during the Pokemon Go craze, you experienced augmented reality. Sixty years after fighter pilots used the precursor to AR technology, the ability to view the world enhanced with digital imagery is now available in the dashboard of your car, in eyeglasses or on your smartphone.
1. What is augmented reality?
AR is what happens when you superimpose computer-generated information such as text and images onto the real world in front of you. Widely used examples include face-distorting lenses on the Snapchat photo-sharing app, which add effects like face swaps and virtual rainbows to selfies, and an iPhone feature called Animoji that incorporates the user’s expressions to animate virtual animal faces. AR is related to, but distinct from, virtual reality: Where AR adds to our reality, VR immerses the user in a completely artificial world.
2. How does it work?
Head-mounted AR displays, first developed in 1968, are similar to the head-up display developed for military aircraft cockpits in the 1950s. They use a monitor to project imagery and data into the user’s field of view. Advances have allowed headsets to be shrunk down to the size of a pair of eyeglasses. Startup Magic Leap released what it calls a virtual retinal display, a headset that transmits images directly into the user’s eye.
3. What else is AR being used for?
Alphabet Inc.’s Google Glass is used by companies in the manufacturing, logistics and health care industries, allowing operators to do hands-on work while viewing schematics and instruction via the device’s eyepiece. Microsoft won a contract to produce an AR platform based on its HoloLens 2 headset for the U.S. Army. The specialized headset -- the Integrated Visual Augmentation System, or IVAS -- uses satellite images to give soldiers a bird’s-eye view of their surroundings, including the locations of fellow soldiers who are similarly equipped. Microsoft also announced a 10th-anniversary edition of its popular Minecraft game in which mobile users can construct, view and collect game elements that appear as 3-D images imposed on real-life surroundings as captured by a phone’s camera. Niantic Inc.’s Pokemon Go is credited with introducing AR to the general public.
4. How popular is it?
Research firm IDC estimates that 200,000 AR headsets were shipped by manufacturers in 2018 and sees that number jumping to 31 million in 2023. There were 70 million daily active users of Snapchat Lenses as of last year. Pokemon Go has been downloaded over one billion times.
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