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  • Ritaban Mitra

A Brief Introduction to: Augmented Reality(AR)

Updated: Jun 19

"A technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user's view of the real world, thus providing a composite view."

When you perform a google search about Augmented Reality, this is one of the first definitions that comes up. Although, most people with some idea of what Augmented Reality is would accept the definition, it remains a very vague description of an amazing technology with the potential to change how humans interact with computers altogether.



So, What is Augmented Reality?


To understand AR better, let's see how the two terms work together.

To augment literally means to add to something, or to increase something. Reality is referred to the current state of things in the world. So when we combine these two terms, things start to become clearer. The whole objective of AR is to enhance and add features to the current environment.


ORIGINS OF AR:


The MicroSoft HoloLens, Google Glass and other tech giants working on AR headsets and related technologies have revived an interest, and have contributed in generating hype in the field of AR. However, the foundations of the technology has been around since the 90's.

The term augmented reality was first coined by Thomas Caudell and David Mizell in 1992, two engineers working on a headset to train Airplane Engineers for circuit wirings. According to them, the goal of AR was to reduce costs and improve efficiency of aircraft manufacturing. AR is used to alter one's current perception of a real world environment, which makes it different from Virtual Reality (VR) which aims to replace the real world with a simulated one.


One of the first devices implementing AR/VR.

Back in the 1990's, a large device known as an Head Mounted Display (HMD) was used to simulate environments, often for the purpose of training/experimentation.

These devices have evolved significantly over the years, and now many people are able to interact with AR based technology from their smartphone, which is unbelievable when you consider the early implementation of the same technology. Smartphone operating system (android/ios) manufacturers such as Google ( ARCore ) and Apple (AR kit) each have their own software packages and toolkits enabling interested developers to create apps for their respective devices. All of this is possible mostly because the sensors required for AR have such as gyroscopes, accelerometers, cameras have been made available on more smartphones and have gotten better over the years.


HOW AR WORKS:


In order to implement an AR system, one would require a device with multiple sensors such as Gyroscopes, Cameras, Accelerometers,Displays. AR can also be displayed on various devices such as screens, glasses, handheld devices, mobile phones, head-mounted displays.

Some common terms associated to the technology are Placing, Scale, Occlusion, Lighting, Context Awareness and Motion Tracking.


Placing: When tracking of AR object is fixed/anchored to a certain point in real world, it should exhibit same behaviour.

Scale: When AR objects change size relative to the device position, enabled by environment understanding.

Occlusion: Image/Objects are blocked by each other.

Lighting: Refers to the behaviour of light and shadows on the objects in the app. Context Awareness: AR hardware's ability to be aware of objects in the environment.


Motion Tracking: AR relies on computer vision to see the world and recognise the objects in it. The first step in the computer vision process is getting the visual information, the environment around the hardware to the brain inside the device. The process of scanning, recognising, segmenting, and analysing environmental information is called tracking, in immersive technologies. For AR, there’s two ways tracking happens, inside-out tracking and outside-in tracking.


SLAM(Simultaneous Localization and Mapping)

It is used to understand where the phone is relative to the world around it. ARCore detects visually distinct features in the captured camera image called feature points and uses these points to compute its change in location. The visual information is combined with inertial measurements from the device's IMU to estimate the pose (position and orientation) of the camera relative to the world over time.


Plane Finding: Ability to detect and generate flat surfaces.


The object detects the edges of the table.

Light Estimation: Ability to understand effect of light and shadows.


Here, the AR is able to understand the effect of light and darkness on the object.

Anchors: User defined points where AR objects are placed.


CURRENT STATE OF AR


There are 4 types of augmented reality today:

  • markerless AR

  • marker-based AR

  • projection-based AR

  • superimposition-based AR

In 2013 Google performed beta tests on the Google Glass – with internet connection via Bluetooth. 

In 2015 Microsoft presented HoloLens (an AR goggle headset with lots of sensors to display HD holograms). 

In 2016 Nianti claunched Pokemon Go game for mobile devices. The app blew the gaming industry up and earned $2 million in a just first week. 


APPLICATIONS OF AR


Due to the versatile nature of this technology, it can be used in a number of industries in a number of ways. Some of it's applications could be as follows:


1)SHOPPING & RETAIL:


IKEA

A number of product based companies have started to realise the importance of customer experiences and have started to give importance to the overall experience of the end user. This includes trials and experiencing the product before committing to buy it, and in some cases can be very useful when trying the product can be logistically challenging. One of the most widely known applications is IKEA's "Place", which is an AR based app that allows users to visualise and view how a piece of furniture would fit into their living room.



Image Source: IKEA

This is a great way for people to see what works for them and what doesn't without having to go through the trouble of purchasing an item and then to find out later that it does not suit their requirements.


2.BUSINESS:


COCO-COLA

Owners of supermarkets and malls can use the coco-cola AR application to decide which part of their store would look good with the vending machine


Coco-cola cooling machine being previewed in a store in Germany.

3.SOCIAL MEDIA


SnapChat is one of the most widely-used social media platforms, and has been wildly successful because of the trademark, unique AR-based filters and animations. Many of the features initially found in snapchat have made it to other social media platforms such as Instagram, and this trend can be expected to continue in the near feature.



Snapchat has made the AR experience mainstream.

4.GAMING


Pokemon Go:

Pokemon Go was one of the first games in the field of AR that became very successful and made a huge impact in the tech community (despite not being completely an AR app as it was only in 2D), and proved to the world that there was a market for such apps & games, encouraging more developers to adopt the technology.



2016 AR based game Pokemon Go

5.EDUCATION


One of the most exciting applications of Augmented Reality would be the educational industry, which has been rapidly growing and has seen an increase in investment over the years. Students can supplement their learning experience by learning theoretical aspects from teachers/instructors and also gain practical hands on experience at their fingertips, or even visualise complicated concepts, helping to think in different dimensions.


AR can help students to visualise complex concepts.

ISSUES WITH AR


Despite the promise shown by AR technology, there is still a long way to go, as there are many issues that need to be solved to improve the efficiency and usability of such technology for the every day user:


i) Processing Constraints: Only a select number of mobile phones are able to access the AR based applications, as they require processing power to be able to run on mobile phones. Over the last few years however, mobile phones have become way more powerful, and in the near future, most if not all phones should be able to access the technology.Another issue is that these apps end up generating a lot of heat and often require a lot of storage space. The best solution would be to optimise such apps.


ii) Not enough developers: Due to the lack of a user base,most developers were very skeptical of the AR technology, thinking of it as a hobbyist niche, with very few if any users.

But as mobile phones get more powerful, the way that we use them is also likely to change, and this could mean that more developers work on AR apps.


iii) Design Barrier: Some of the most common technical issues that occurs in AR app development is the problem of occlusion, lighting, and 3D design. What this leads to is objects not looking or feeling realistic enough, making for a very mediocre experience, which pushes users away from trying such apps.


FUTURE OF AR: With the AR software market expected to reach $35.22 Billion by 2022, it appears to be a very exciting time for developers and investors to learn more about the industry, so the true potential of this incredible technology can be reached.


If you would like to find out more on AR, we would recommend going through the course:

https://www.coursera.org/learn/ar/home/welcome

https://developer.apple.com/augmented-reality/

https://developers.google.com/ar

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