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How far can augmented reality take us?

smartphone augmented reality

Wednesday, 15 January, 2020

In the early months of 2010, websites and newspapers carried excitable stories about how apps and mobile internet services could become big business.

And even though these technologies traced their origins back to the Noughties, they proved to be two of the last decade’s most significant developments.

As we start another decade, there’s growing excitement around augmented reality, also known as AR.

But how does AR actually work? How important could it become in our lives? And haven’t we seen AR already?

Reality bites

Taking the last of those questions first, the simple answer is ‘yes’.

The 2016 launch of Pokémon Go gave millions of people their first taste of AR, as they battled magical creatures on their smartphones.

Projections through a device’s camera app overlaid digital animations onto real-world locations, with Pokémon characters lurking in local parks, museums and other public spaces.

More recently, Microsoft has started rolling out Minecraft Earth – a so-called God game where players can construct virtual structures in real settings.

Once you’ve built a castle on your local high street, every other Minecraft Earth player sees it when they visit that location.

This is augmented reality at its simplest. But its scope extends far beyond online games.

Which brings us onto our second question. How far can AR go?

In truth, the potential is endless:

These are just four examples of how AR could improve our lives.

Apple, Google and Facebook have all brought AR development tools to market, helping third-party businesses develop bespoke applications and services.

But there’s a question. In fact, it’s the first one we asked.

How does all this work?

Until now, AR apps have relied on our devices being set to Camera mode.

That means (a) holding the device in your hand, (b) staring at it rather than the wider world, and (c) not being able to use any other services or apps while the AR utility is running.

AR’s long-term goals are rather more sophisticated.

Augmented information is designed to be projected onto surfaces, like the head-up displays in high-end cars and fighter jets.

As such, it’s clearly ideal for use with headgear.

Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 went on sale in November, weighing just 1.3 pounds and able to project holograms in front of a visor.

However, the Holy Grail is wearable spectacles and sunglasses, with firms around the world competing to bring comfortable and untethered AR headgear to market.

Apple, Google and Epson have already launched smartglasses which can be worn anywhere while projecting information onto the lenses which only the wearer can see.

In the short to medium term, untethered headsets will link to smartphones via Bluetooth, though tomorrow’s augmented reality smartglasses may receive data over 5G.

Once they’re able to upload and download data autonomously, these devices could even replace smartphones.

Their potential is almost limitless.

Neil Cumins author picture

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Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!

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