Augmented Reality: Unraveling the History of AR and How It's Used Today

What is augmented reality and what can we do with it right now?

Jan 22

Photo via JohnDWilliams on iStock

TL;DR: The tech industry is developing a frontier between VR and live action. To better understand the concept, let's look at some augmented reality examples and uses to define it in a broader context. 

The digital world can streamline shopping, growing a business, and so much more. None of those things need to be limited to a purely virtual existence though.

Before springing into full virtual reality, sometimes a digital tweak is best. New augmented reality (AR) examples and products pop up every day, and each one adds to what makes this hybrid technology so promising. 

The release of the Apple Vision Pro has tech enthusiasts saying VR and AR are "the next big thing again." So let's explore the wide range of existing augmented reality uses and how it already influences fields as varied as navigation and personal fitness. 

What is Augmented Reality?

Augmented reality blends reality with the digital universe. From playful adventures in Pokémon Go to time-saving navigation applications, AR is transforming the way we perceive and interact with the world.

At its core, augmented reality is just the bridge between your tangible surroundings and the expansive digital realm. It's reality, enhanced.

Unlike virtual reality (VR), which immerses users entirely in a computer-generated environment, AR changes your perception of the real world by overlaying digital information. All of this is done in real-time, too. 

Let's look at one of the most talked-about augmented reality examples—smart glasses. While wearing a pair, your city's streets could become an urban playground with interactive guides popping up as you explore.

Well-executed, it could become a seamless way to integrate digital information, entertainment, and so much more with the real world. 

AR technology operates through devices like smartphones, tablets, heads-up displays, glasses, and headsets—each equipped with cameras and sensors that capture your real-world environment. Sophisticated algorithms then merge the captured data with computer-generated graphics, creating an enhanced sensory experience

What is the Difference Between AR, VR, and Mixed Reality?

Photos via Mika Baumeister and Uriel Soberanes on Unsplash

There’s a quick and easy way to understand the difference between augmented reality and virtual reality, and all it takes is the answer to this question: What do you see?

If the world around you is entirely digital, you’re in a virtual environment. If there’s a blend of real and digital, then it’s augmented reality. Both are immersive experiences, and both are growing with exciting new apps and software, but they can serve different purposes. 

Virtual reality (VR)

VR is like the ticket to a completely digital realm, a full immersion into a computer-generated environment where the physical world is entirely replaced.

When you put on a VR headset, you effectively step into another universe, whether it’s a video game, a simulated training environment, or a virtual tour of a distant land (or an apartment you’re touring).

Everything you see, hear, and interact with in VR is a product of computer-generated wizardry, which is a more all-encompassing experience than you might have with one of our augmented reality examples.

VR's magic lies in transporting you to places and experiences that are totally detached from your immediate surroundings. You don’t need to be in a field to see a sweeping sci-fi vista in VR. 

Augmented reality (AR)

Photo by Tobias on Unsplash

AR doesn't aim to create an entirely new world but instead overlays digital elements onto your real-world view.

Think of it as wearing a pair of glasses that superimposes information, graphics, or objects onto what you see around you. This blend of digital and physical worlds makes AR an exciting and versatile technology.

Whether you're viewing historical information about a landmark, turning your cat into a dragon with a TikTok filter, or following Google Maps walking directions on your smartphone, AR enriches your real-world experience. 

For a formal deep dive into augmented reality use and development, The 2023 Metaverse & AR Developer Bundle is only $30. 

Mixed reality

You might notice that companies like Meta and Apple are avoiding defining their products as strictly for AR or VR.

Apple is using the term "spatial computing," while other companies like Meta Quest, Varjo, and Sony are using the term "VR with mixed reality" to describe new headset technologies according to CNET.

As everyday AR glasses are still a ways away, mixed reality seems to be as close as VR headsets and VR products can get to an AR perspective for now. 

The History of Augmented Reality

Like so much other incredible modern technology, AR has humble origins, and some trace it to the 1960s. This was a pivotal era when computer scientists and visionaries first began conceptualizing the idea of merging digital information with the physical world.

The notion was groundbreaking, but the technology of the time was far from making it a practical reality.

In the early 1960s, computer scientist Ivan Sutherland laid the foundation for augmented reality with a system he called the Sword of Damocles. It was an enormous headset connected to a computer that was suspended from the ceiling.

Wearing this cumbersome headset, the user experienced simple computer-generated graphics that were superimposed on their view of the real world. The graphics were primitive by today's standards, but the concept was revolutionary. Sutherland's work marks the birth of head-mounted displays (HMDs), a key component in the development of AR.

While the Sword of Damocles was a proof of concept, as the earliest of augmented reality examples, it revealed the potential for augmenting reality. However, the system was impractical for everyday use. Yet, it set the stage for further innovations, and throughout the following decades, researchers and engineers continued to explore the possibilities of augmented reality.

Though the technology was not yet ready to go mainstream, the seeds of augmented reality had been planted. Over the years, the evolution of computers, graphics processing, and miniaturization paved the way for the AR technology we know today. 

The Current Feasibility of Augmented Reality

You might have already started to notice a surge in augmented reality uses, from everyday entertainment on social media to exciting developments in sports or medicine. It’s no accident that all this is happening now.

Here are some of the underlying factors:

  • Miniaturization: AR tech is compact and efficient, fitting into devices like smartphones and lightweight AR glasses.
  • Connectivity: High-speed internet (4G, 5G) ensures AR apps can access real-time data, delivering seamless experiences.
  • Powerful hardware: Modern devices are equipped with potent CPUs and GPUs, handling AR's computational demands.
  • Improved tracking: AR systems now have highly accurate tracking due to advancements in computer vision, ensuring precise real-world mapping.
  • Display advances: Transparent displays and innovative optical systems allow AR to blend digital elements seamlessly with the real world.
  • Developer community: A thriving collective of developers creates a wide range of AR applications, from gaming to practical tools.

The tech behind augmented reality

Augmented reality is no longer a concept of the future; it's a present-day technology that is reshaping how you can interact with the world, but there’s a whole lot going on behind the scenes. 

The systems enabling augmented reality are intricate and diverse. Nonetheless, there are four main types of technology that have a major role in how AR works today. 

  1. Sensors and cameras: These capture the real world in devices like smartphones, tablets, AR glasses, and headsets, providing data for AR. Recent improvements have made them highly accurate.
  2. Image recognition and tracking: AR uses this advanced tech to understand the environment, distinguishing real objects, surfaces, and spaces—which helps position digital elements accurately in view.
  3. Processing power: Powerful CPUs and GPUs, along with mobile devices and specialized AR hardware, make real-time merging of natural and digital worlds possible.
  4. Display tech: To view AR content, we have various options, from smartphones to AR glasses. Transparent displays play a significant role in creating a seamless AR experience.

Augmented Reality Uses Today

Photo via Poplar.Studio

Augmented reality has evolved into a transformative technology on par with generative AI with diverse applications across various industries.

You can find augmented reality examples in gaming, navigation, education, retail, marketing, sports, wellness, and social media spaces.

Immersive gaming leans on augmented reality

Augmented reality gaming takes interactive experiences to a new level, where digital elements seamlessly blend with the real world.

From popular games like the aforementioned Pokémon Go to immersive AR escape rooms, gaming is a frontier for AR innovation. These games encourage physical activity, exploration, and social interaction in the real world, but designing them is no cakewalk.

If you want to find out how to design your own AR game, the Ultimate Learn Unity Game Development Bundle is only $30, and Build an Augmented Reality App & Game with Unity Course is just $20. 

Navigation and AR make a great pair

AR enhances our ability to navigate the physical world by overlaying digital information onto our surroundings. On this note, you can find some more augmented reality examples in the form of GPS apps, location-based guides, and interactive maps that are changing how we find our way.

Companies like Google provide real-time directions, making it easier to explore new cities, find nearby points of interest, or figure out where the nearest taco shop is when you don’t have time to find someone and taco-bout directions. 

Using augmented reality in education and job training

Augmented reality is revolutionizing education, offering interactive and engaging lessons.

Whether it's exploring the solar system in 3D or practicing surgical procedures through AR simulations, learning is more immersive than ever. In the classroom, AR is used to bring history to life, teach complex scientific concepts, and engage students in ways that traditional textbooks cannot.

Online and in-person shopping are primed for AR

Some of the most telling augmented reality examples are the ones adding new dimensions to the world of retail.

Using these AR tools from Auglio and Zenni Optical alongside a growing world of fellow forward-thinking providers, you can try on clothes virtually, try on glasses digitally, visualize furniture in your home, and receive additional product information by scanning barcodes.

For example, apps like IKEA Place let you actually see what furniture looks like in your home before you buy it. No more wondering if the space by your bed is narrow enough for the KNARREVIK or just wide enough to fit a MALM. 

Marketing and advertising uses for AR 

Marketers are putting AR to work, creating captivating campaigns. From augmented reality examples of product packaging to AR-powered advertising in the metaverse, it's enhancing brand engagement.

Interactive brochures, posters, and product labels allow customers to scan and unlock immersive content, turning passive advertising into dynamic brand experiences that audiences may actually enjoy, but it can be tough to learn all this on your own.

That’s why it’s important to take note of e-learning opportunities like a Metaverse Essentials Course or this Metaverse and AR Developer Bundle, which only cost $13 and $30, respectively.

Augmented reality shines in art and design

AR for creatives represents a cutting-edge fusion of creativity and technology. Whether it’s a designer transforming a static piece into an interactive experience, or a museum creating augmented exhibits viewed through an app, AR redefines how we engage with the arts.

It invites viewers to become active participants, blurring the line between the physical and digital and ushering in a renaissance of creative possibilities, and apps like Arzign help creatives do this work.

If you’re interested in crafting your own AR art, a lifetime subscription to Arzign is only $30. 

AR improves performance and enhances enjoyment in sports and fitness

Augmented reality has scored a touchdown in the field of sports, whether it’s being used for training, live statistics, or enhancing the fan experience. Fans at sports events can access instant statistics, replays, and player data through their smartphones.

Meanwhile, fitness enthusiasts are enjoying custom AR fitness coaching, personalized workout routines, and real-time feedback, making exercise more engaging and effective. But it still won’t make burpees better—nothing ever will!

Social media has been using AR for a while

Love 'em or hate 'em, augmented reality filters have become integral to many social media platforms like Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. These features have become a defining element of modern social media, allowing users to engage with their followers in innovative ways.

The Future of Augmented Reality

New augmented reality examples continue to emerge at a rapid pace, and as a whole AR stands at an exciting crossroads, poised for a bright future. While certain challenges like hardware limitations, integration into daily life, and content development complexities exist, they are hurdles that innovation can overcome. 

Modern devices have made significant progress, and addressing processing power, battery life, and form factor will make AR more accessible and user-friendly.

Achieving widespread adoption by the general public and fostering a growing developer community will take time, but as businesses invest in AR applications and educational opportunities emerge, the industry continues to expand.

The learning curve is becoming less steep with e-learning resources available for an accessible price, and AR's potential is only beginning to be tapped.

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