What is Augmented Reality?
Augmented reality technology consists of the integration of graphic content over a view of the real world.
To do this, through different devices like smartphones or smart glasses, virtual information is overlaid on the reality that the user sees.
When the smartphone is used, the result is shown on the screen, augmenting the video captured by the camera of the smartphone.
In the case of smart glasses, the augmented reality experience is shown in the field of view of the user by an image projected onto the lens of the glasses, generating a similar effect to a hologram.
It is very interesting to analyse how and when augmented reality technology emerged, since the first time the concept was used was in 1901. It was the writer Frank Baum, who first imagined electronic glasses to display additional information about the people in front of him.
The first technological implementation based on augmented reality came in 1957, by Morton Heiling, a cinematographer who proposed in his Sensorama a multisensory experience to the user, composed of visual, sound and olfactory elements.
In 1973, the computer artist Myron W. Krueger, created the first installation of augmented reality that mixed video cameras with a projection system, in order to create an interactive environment that responded to the movements of users through shadows and movement.
During the 1990s, very interesting applications began to be implemented that used the concept of augmented reality to solve problems in areas such as industry or design. It is worth noting to Tom Caudell, who introduced the term “augmented reality” to describe an application to support the assembly of complex electrical wiring.
Although this concept was invented many years ago, augmented reality is still an emerging technology today, and it has required many technological advances in computing and visualization to reach maturity. This has led to the emergence of augmented reality companies, which, due to the evolution of these technologies, are taking advantage of the enormous potential that augmented reality has in many sectors.
How does augmented reality work?
Augmented reality is the combination of two technologies, machine vision and graphic engines.
The graphic engine is responsible for rendering the content, typically in 3D, which shows the augmented reality. The artificial vision takes care that the location of the augmented contents is the correct one in the scene, so that the composition is coherent and understandable by the user.
The main element involved in the graphic part would be the rendering. This process consists of the computer’s interpretation of a three-dimensional scene to create a two-dimensional image.
The information that is processed to perform the rendering is the geometry of the 3D model, the characteristics of its surface (colour and material), the lighting of the scene and the position of the camera.
The artificial vision techniques that are applied in augmented reality are very varied, and are mainly called tracking technologies. There are many types, for example, facial tracking, which allows to detect and follow the position of a face, or texture tracking, which places a reference image in a three-dimensional coordinate system. The newest artificial vision techniques currently used incorporate active sensors based on structured light, SLAM tracking or 3D tracking.
For an augmented reality experience to be successful, it must work in real time. This means that each of the two modules must do so as well, and both are very demanding on the use of computational resources. Therefore, the rendering module must be able to paint about 60 images per second, and the tracking module likewise, be able to analyse and extract information from 60 images per second.
Types of Augmented Reality
Depending on the device used to create the augmented reality experience, three types can be distinguished.
Augmented reality on personal computers
In about 2006, thanks to the push of the video game world, computers began to incorporate more powerful processors and dedicated graphics cards, making it possible for the first time to develop high-quality augmented reality experiences at a reasonable price.
In those early years, applications related to the world of marketing were very popular, both at the point of sale, as events and road shows, and also integrated into Web pages. The advertising campaigns made abundant use of the new technology and its wow effect to launch products and invite users to live experiences that mixed the real and the digital.
Augmented reality on smartphone and tablet
The social and technological revolution produced by smartphones acted as a catalyst for the growth of augmented reality. Smartphones, and later tablets as well, allowed users to enjoy augmented reality experiences very easily and anywhere. Between 2009 and 2010, smartphones had enough computing power to run powerful augmented reality applications.
Of course, the first apps linked to magazines, catalogues or billboards appeared. But there were also others in new sectors such as tourism, which overlaid added information about the city on the mobile phone’s camera, depending on orientation and location of the user, thanks to the geolocation system and sensors of the phone. Some companies started to focus on training and entertainment, and proposed the first augmented reality video games or the first interactive augmented manuals.
Augmented reality in glasses and visors
The first glass to be promoted in a big way as an augmented reality device was the Google Glasses in 2012. But despite the enormous technological media effort made by Google, the project was not very successful and had to be put on hold. However, the world of augmented reality owes a lot to this failure, since it was from that moment onwards that it became widely known that the future of this technology would be linked to glasses.
A spectacle that was marketed almost at the same time as the Google Glasses, were the Epson Moverio BT-100. The manufacturer incorporated to this equipment a pair of micro-projectors to give the user one of the first experiences “see through” in glasses, so that the user can see through a lens and simultaneously, both the reality and virtual content projected on that lens.
In 2016 Microsoft launched the HoloLens 1 device, a complete platform for augmented reality computing. This device integrated a multitude of sensors and very varied technologies, allowing it to recognize the environment or the user’s voice and gestures, to significantly improve the user experience. The device was so revolutionary that a new term was even used to name its main function, mixed reality. Actually, this new name is not far from the traditional augmented reality, and what differentiates them mainly is the ability of HoloLens Goggles to intelligently place virtual elements in real space, thanks to the 3D model that is generated from the environment while using the glasses.
Subsequently, new models of augmented reality glasses have been launched on the market, such as Magic Leap, Hololens 2 or Nreal, which confirm the strength of the commitment to this new industry. The main challenges for the coming years will be to make these glasses more affordable for the mass market and the emergence of applications that take full advantage of their capabilities to improve our daily lives.
Differences between virtual reality and augmented reality
Since augmented reality glasses have come into use, it may be easier to confuse the two technologies. The main differences between them are basically the intensity of the immersion that an experience proposes.
The maximum immersion, is experienced when all the sensations that the user perceives are created by the computer, that would be virtual. This would be the case with virtual reality and “closed” glasses, which do not allow you to see anything that happens outside the virtual environment.
On the contrary, the augmented reality glasses overlay information on the place where we are, so that we are aware of the real environment.
The applications of virtual reality and augmented reality are very different, precisely because of this variation in the intensity of the immersion.
In theory, augmented reality will have a much greater projection than virtual reality, since it can be incorporated into any area of our lives, as it is a technology that enriches experiences and processes.
Virtual reality, by contrast, allows the simulation of experiences in a controlled environment, so that to enhance its use, we must change our habits, in a more radical than with augmented reality.
Main benefits of augmented reality
Augmented reality is a technology that offers us an improved interface to access information or services.
It allows users to access the information they need from anywhere and with hands free.
Quick access to information when visual patterns that have been calibrated are detected.
High quality 3D content and animation integrated in real space.
Multimodal user interfaces, you can interact through gestures and voice with the applications.
Sensitive to the environment and location, so that the content changes depending on where the user moves.
It enriches any daily activity with extended information useful at any time.
Current Uses of Augmented Reality
The applications of augmented reality are very varied and in practically any context of use.
Some examples of augmented reality would be the following.
Nowadays, print and on-site advertising is still widely used by brands to promote themselves. A common application of augmented reality is to increase these ads through a mobile application that is published through the market stores. Through the app you could access additional content such as videos or 3D animations, discounts, gifts or similar.
Another possibility is to directly enrich the products, for example, in a dealership, could be seen on top of each car, additional information showing optional equipment or engine parts that are not in sight.
Augmented catalogues are also very common within marketing applications. They enable the user a better understanding of how a product works, how it is assembled or how it is integrated into a larger assembly.
There are many ways to apply augmented reality to improve training.
Usually, we must consult a paper manual while manipulating physical elements, for example, when assembling a piece of furniture or when operating a machine.
In these cases, augmented reality with glasses offers enormous potential, since in addition to leaving our hands free for assembly, the information is displayed in the place that most interests us, or even superimposed on the object on which we must operate.
Textbooks will never be the same when augmented reality is incorporated into them for interactive, 3d lessons in anatomy, chemistry or history.
The ability to link three-dimensional information to school materials makes it much easier to understand the subjects.
Another very relevant aspect of the application of augmented reality in the educational world is that it provides students with an interactive environment with knowledge.
The freedom to manipulate the 3D elements and to explore the scenes, is very entertaining and allows to increase the motivation of the students to promote the pace of learning.
Industry is being one of the sectors where augmented reality technology is being adopted earlier.
Applications in areas such as maintenance, assembly support or quality control are already common in the industrial world.
The main uses of this technology are related to the presentation of step-by-step guided procedures, which indicates an operator how perform an assembly or a repair. It is also related to remote assistance systems that enable the resolution of incidents remotely, due to the fact that an expert can help more effectively with on-screen instructions based on augmented reality on the object to be operated on.
One of the most powerful aspects of augmented reality is the ability to show things that are not visible to the naked eye. In the medical field, this possibility has many applications.
For example, the surgeons could have expanded information about the patient while performing an operation. They may even be able to overlay guidelines on the body of the patient to show where to intervene through the use of medical imaging (CT, X-ray, or MRI) with augmented reality.
A very interesting advantage of augmented reality glasses for surgical environments is that they can be operated by voice and gesture, hand contact is not required. Therefore, it does not affect the essential sterilization of an operating room.