Augmented reality (AR)
differs from virtual reality (VR)
in that the environment is real-world, but the objects are computer-generated. This lends itself to a number of unique experiences. Here we’ve broken down our top 7 augmented reality experiences for you to try.
Competing realities: Virtual and augmented
Before getting into the list of 7 augmented reality experiences, we should first touch on what the technology is.
Virtual Reality - VR
We’ve got a pretty good feel for what this means; movies like Strange Days, The Matrix
, or Ready Player One
have put the idea out into the zeitgeist, even if we’ve never worn a virtual reality rig
in real life.
VR is a device that takes over your senses entirely and shows you an alternate world that gets piped directly into your eyes - one whose perspective moves as you move. In VR, you “enter” a space that doesn’t exist in the real world. The “real” is replaced, during use, by the “virtual.”
In movies, this experience is a complete and total sensory takeover, where the virtual space is impossible to distinguish from real life.
While the experience is often compelling and the sense of immersion can be thrilling, in practice, in the real world as of this moment, it isn’t exactly as perfect of a simulation as we imagine in science fiction. Yet.
Technologies like the Oculus Rift
, the HTC Vive
, the PlayStation VR
, or the Samsung Gear VR
, accomplish VR by having the user wearing a head-mounted display (HMD) and use controllers or input devices in conjunction with sensors and camera set ups. This allows the user to interact with the false - and wholly created - other world being shined into the eyes through the HMD.
But there’s another reality-hacking technology that is rising at the same time as VR, which promises a different kind of experience. It’s not a complete takeover of reality by technology, but an enhancement of it in real time. Augmented Reality.
Augmented Reality - AR
The idea is that you see the world as it is, but you also see other things, overlaid onto the world. This tech is not science fiction. We’ve got the early, 1.0 versions already out in the world, and the rest are coming. And the technology, both literally and figuratively, can change the world and the way we interact with it.
Imagine a pair of techno-glasses that a mechanic can put on, which overlay personal “holograms” onto tools and parts, identifying them and showing what to do to affect a repair. Or imagine looking at your dining room table, and having it suddenly spawn an interactive game-board that exists only in your vision, which you can reach out and manipulate with your hands.
Or imagine your house, but with zombies, fully visible to you, standing right next to the china cabinet, and stalking through the dining room towards you. That’s the promise of AR.
AR and VR technology
are not so much in competition as they are developing in tandem. Advances and development in one field lend strength and innovation to the other, and cross-pollination rather than Darwinian survival of the fittest is more the model.
What kinds of AR are there right now?
First, to really understand the idea of AR, you’ve got to realize that you’re probably using a form of it already. If you have Waze or CityMapper on your phone, or if you got caught up in the Pokémon Go! craze a few summers ago, you’ve already used a kind of augmented reality technology.
GPS phones that interact in real time with you and give you information about where to go, or what is around are augmenting the reality of your experience. Guided headset-audio tours in museums are another form of augmenting the reality with an overlay of information.
But what we’re really interested in are the holograms and graphics, right? What about those? Let’s start with the screen-based AR experiences and apps available now.
Nintendo 2DS and 3DS
1. AR Games
The pretty-reasonably-priced handheld Nintendo 2DS
, a cartridge-based video game system, offers the AR Games
app built into the system on startup, almost as a throwaway extra. The little device has front- and back-mounted cameras.
By recognizing specific physical cards that come in the package that it uses to orient the graphics, it overlays game elements onto the stream of video from the camera and creates surprisingly effective AR gameplay.
You’re viewing it on a screen in your hand and not directly from your vision, but still. When you see the card you’ve laid on your kitchen table (in real time as you view it on a screen with the camera) suddenly glow, disappear, and a hatch open (“in” your table) and watch a robot dragon emerge from it (that you then have to battle) it does feel like magic.
iPhone and Android
The device you carry around to look at silly cat videos and send text messages to your friends can also deliver augmented reality applications right now. Here are a few of the best:
2. IKEA Place
It’s one thing to see a piece of furniture in a store or in a set-up showroom display. But there’s always the question of “what would it look like in this room? Would it even fit? What color should we pick?”
IKEA, the giant warehouse furniture store/maze/meatball-and-lingonberry-shop has an app that provides something resembling an answer. IKEA Place uses your phone’s camera and the angles of the walls and floor to project a 3D model of the furniture you’re looking to put there in the spot. It’s not perfect, but it can give a real sense of size and color, and help you make a decision before you head out to the labyrinth of Swedish design and household items near you.
Their slogan? “Think before you ink.” If you want to know what a tattoo would really look like on your body, all you have to do draw a little smiley-face with a Sharpie marker on your skin where you want the tattoo to be. The app uses your phone’s camera to recognize the face and replace it, like magic, with whatever design you’ve chosen from the galleries they supply - or even your own uploaded design. Whether you’re actually considering going under the needle or just doing a little bit of imaginary tattoo-tourism, the effect is pretty fun and the app is free.
4. Google Translate
In the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime,” David Byrne sings: “And you may find yourself/Living in a shotgun shack/And you may find yourself/In another part of the world…” OK. But if you do find yourself there, and you don’t speak the language, how can you understand the signs or newspaper?
The answer is “with your smartphone.” Google’s free Translate app will provide capable-enough translations of cut-and-pasted text from this language to that one, but the really amazing augmented reality thing it does is almost buried in the app’s interface.
Using the camera tab, any text you point your phone at will be automatically translated, and replaced, on your phone screen, in real time. That SORTIE sign in France? On your phone’s camera screen, you will see it as EXIT, in the same font, size, and color.
It works pretty much like the Tardis translation program in Dr Who. Or maybe closer to the Universal Translator from Star Trek, downloaded onto your phone, ready to amaze you every time you use it. This is an application that can be genuinely useful, as well as a fun novelty.
AR headset technology
But what about the AR headsets
, with the real-time holograms and information overlaid onto the world in your vision? Those do exist, but they’re currently pretty leading-edge technology. The consumer-level products that are available or that are scheduled to become available soon are the Microsoft HoloLens and HoloLens 2.
The good news is those sci-fi, mixed-reality “magic sunglasses”-style AR headsets really do exist in the Microsoft HoloLens. They are sci-fi looking headband glasses that feels like they came straight out of an anime movie. And they actually project virtual “holograms” that mix with your surroundings, just like all the speculative fiction about such technology promises.
The HoloLens unit captures and uses the wearer’s motions and sounds as input. Applications can be controlled through what Microsoft refers to as a GGV interface (Gaze, Gesture, and Voice). It has integrated the Microsoft smart voice command Cortana into the device, and tracks gaze and focus, as well as the users’ hand gestures as seen through its cameras. Tapping one’s fingers in the air is recognized by the HoloLens as a mouse click would be.
The HoloLens also runs Windows 10 in a projected, mixed reality mode. Your applications and interface items appear to float on a screen in the middle of whatever room you are in - a screen that only you can see and manipulate.
The bad news is that they’re really only used at the moment by industrial clients for industrial uses; consumer-level interest and advancement is not currently at a place for large investments. Being at the forefront of AR with HoloLens, Microsoft has decided to focus mostly on business and medical applications, training and visual sharing, and manipulation of models to grow the technology.
5. CAE VimedixAR
One such application of the HoloLens has been CAE VimedixAR . This ultrasound training simulator allows healthcare professionals to interact with 3D holograms of medical ultrasound readings to get more a detailed and accurate understanding of the internal structures and goings on of the data. This could mean more accurate diagnosis and treatments in the near future.
But as proof of concept for eventual widespread consumer and gaming use, Microsoft did develop a test first-person shooter game, called RoboRaid, where alien invaders zoom into the room you are in and must be shot down with your hand-and-gaze lasers. And of course, a version of Minecraft for the system was developed as a demonstration of possible types of augmented reality games for this technology.
Microsoft recently introduced the HoloLens 2, which has improved and tweaked the functions of the original unit and performs more reliably. It, too, is targeted for industry and production uses, as this video
from Microsoft shows.
6. Magic Leap One
For the hefty price of $2,295, a real-life AR, mixed-reality system can be yours by way of the Magic Leap One. It is comprised of three pieces: The “Lightwear” headset, a small, belt-wearable computer called the “Lightpack,” and a handheld controller. The Lightwear glasses are not a visor, but look like something from a William Gibson cyberpunk novel - round lensed glasses with a decidedly techno-feel.
What’s surprising about them is how comfortable they are to wear. And from reports, the Magic Leap does deliver an exciting experience, but not one without flaws and limitations. While the technology is new and exciting, it does not yet deliver the complete and total WOW factor, but rather shows the promise of what that WOW factor will be when it gets a little better.
If you’re old enough to remember the early “personal data assistants,” or PDAs of the early 2000s like the Palm Pilot or the HP iPAQ, the comparison between them and the eventual integrated smartphone is really what the current state of AR feels like. The promise of what is possible is there and the path of where it is going is exciting. But we’re not quite there yet with the current technology.
The device, while purchasable by custom ordering through the website, is in its first generation. The system being sold now is called the “Creator Edition,” and is generally for developers and VR/AR software engineers to use to build and play with ideas or for bleeding-edge, any-cost first adopters, more so than as a fully realized gaming/entertainment unit.
The unlikely AR killer app
The current state of augmented reality and AR apps is limited but within those limitations some functions are pretty solid.
Since the tech is pricey, finding a niche market that’s not averse to spending money on gear, with a specific need that AR solves, is something that vexes would-be augmented reality developers. It has pushed Microsoft into specific industrial and medical uses, since they have the money to spend on the hyper-specific problems that AR can provide solutions for.
7. Eyesight Raptor
But there is one hobby and pastime that has reasonably sophisticated, if narrowly focused augmented reality tech available for it right now: Cyclists.
Using AR glasses technology with GPS, speedometers, and biometrics, the Eyesight Raptor delivers what is, in essence, a video-game style “heads up display” (HUD) to serious cyclists to monitor every aspect of their bike ride. These functions include speed, mapping, and a series of menus and read-outs that are controllable by either voice activation or tapping and swiping on the stems of the glasses.
Having a cyborg-style overlay of data on one’s field of vision, in real time, to enhance and improve the experience and provide feedback for performance, distance, and location is a really targeted use of AR. But for the kind of person for whom that target hits, it’s a pretty “living in the future” bit of gear.
The current state of augmented reality and AR headsets isn’t exactly “The future is HERE and NOW.” It’s more like “The future is ALMOST HERE, and we can see it on the immediate horizon!” And that’s an exciting place to reside right now.
About the Author
Jolene Dobbin is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Jolene is an East Coast-based writer with experience creating strategic messaging, marketing, and sales content for companies in the high-tech industry.