What is augmented reality (AR)? It sounds like a buzzword — something that might be tossed around in the same breath as virtual reality (VR). In fact, we can’t get enough of VR: Facebook’s much-anticipated Oculus Rift just shipped pre-orders, and people are already talking about the games available on the burgeoning Oculus storefront.
So what’s next — a world in which people walk around with massive headsets obstructing their eyes? Not according to Mark Zuckerberg. In fact, Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus is just part of the company’s long-term goal: to make augmented reality an integrated part of our future.
Augmented reality is already here. It was a part of the vision of Google Glass. It’s what the super-secret, Google-backed startup Magic Leap wants to make a reality. And it’s steadily becoming the next big thing in wearables, technology, and the entire idea of the Internet of Things (more on that later).
Here’s how augmented reality will change the world — and how developers are working to get there.
1. Augmented Reality Apps Work With The Internet Of Things
Have you ever heard of the Internet of Things? It refers to a network of connected devices that are able to collect and exchange data, and it isn’t just limited to cell phones or smartwatches. It’s what will one day enable you to come home to the lights already on, your air conditioning already set, and your dinner already cooking in the oven — because your smart home knows your after-work routine.
Unlike virtual reality, which immerses you in a simulated, 3D environment, augmented reality superimposes computer images directly into your world — and those images will be an integral part of the Internet of Things.
Consider Layar, a free augmented reality app already available for Android and iOS. Layar uses interactive print to supplement flyers, postcards, packaging, or any other item with embedded content that can be viewed through a user’s smartphone.
Similar technology is in place with the Google Translate app for Android and iOS, which uses augmented reality translation features. Using your smartphone camera, Google Translate can provide real-time translations of foreign words and phrases.
Picture how useful real-time translations could be when you’re trying to read signage in a foreign country. In fact, for a proper visualization of the app’s possibilities, check out this awesome video created by Google:
These augmented reality apps are small victories for AR in its infancy, but they’re important parts of understanding how the tech will fit into the Internet of Things. When everything is interconnected, you shouldn’t have to drive your car or even look at your phone — you should be able to integrate technology seamlessly with your world, and that’s what augmented reality hopes to do.
It’s what Zuckerberg wants, too.
2. Facebook Is Moving Toward Augmented Reality
At the Facebook F8 keynote in April, Zuckerberg celebrated VR and Facebook’s successes with Oculus. But he plainly stated the company’s goal over the next decade: augmented reality.
Facebook’s long-term goal is for virtual reality and augmented reality to merge into one seamless technology that will allow users to interact with the world in a more meaningful way — beyond the smartphone. Here’s how Zuckerberg described it at his keynote:
“Today, if I want to show my friends a photo, I pull out my phone and I have a small version of the photo. In the future, you’ll be able to snap your fingers and pull out a photo and make it as big as you want, and with your AR glasses you’ll be able to show it to people and they’ll be able to see it.”
The benefits of this tech are tremendous. Nobody wants to be a slave to their phone — but augmented reality glasses could allow us to benefit from all the smartphone benefits without actually craning our necks to view tiny screens.
Does that sound a lot like Google Glass? It should — Google Glass was one of the first recent attempts to make augmented reality a mainstream part of our everyday lives. Ultimately, it failed — remember the term “Glassholes?” — but the lessons from that venture are clear.
We may not be ready for wearable technology that announces itself as much as Google Glass did — and that’s okay. Augmented reality isn’t going anywhere. In fact, before AR goes mainstream, it will make its way into specialized uses and niche markets— and as a matter of fact, it’s already there.
3. Augmented Reality Is Already In Use
Take a look at this video from Augment, a startup that is focused on building “the best augmented reality platform ever.”
Augment brands itself as technology that can supplement the needs of merchandisers, architects, interior designers, and construction companies, among others, by immersing prospective customers in real-time presentations that overlay pre-existing storefronts, floor plans, and room designs.
The company’s technology is clearly focused on niche markets, which is exactly where AR must start before the tech can be transferred to everyday use. Gordon Wetzstein, an Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering at Stanford, told the Atlantic, “AR could be really seamlessly integrated into everyday tasks: communicating, working, information visualization, gaming outside — pretty much anything you can come up with.”
But because AR has so many possibilities, the technology must make sense for specific applications before it becomes a seamless part of our lives. We’ll one day have a device that lets us move digital objects into rooms, overlay restaurant reviews over street views, and lets us drag and drop images in real life. But we have to let those pieces develop into something that makes sense on their own, within niche markets, before they’re introduced to everyday consumers.
In the meantime, Magic Leap and Project Tango are incubating.
4. Magic Leap And Project Tango Will Blow Our Minds
We have no idea what Magic Leap is beyond a killer demonstration of the capabilities of augmented reality. The startup, backed by Google, will theoretically let you play with dragons in your living room and hold baby elephants in your hand.
How? We’re not sure — the project is still in super-secret-development mode — but patent and trademark filings reveal that the technology “projects light directly into your retina, producing images that work with how your eye normally sees,” according to the Atlantic. Another patent filing envisions a screenless touchscreen, so really, anything is possible.
Similarly, anything is possible with Project Tango, Google’s augmented reality venture that is already set to roll out on an upcoming Lenovo phone. Developers were invited to submit augmented reality apps for the project, and the best will receive funding and be available on the phone right out of the box.
So, how does Project Tango work? The project allows devices to map the 3D space around them using sensors. Project Tango-enabled devices can recognize places they’ve been before, like your living room or the office, and they can even find a specific item at the store. But for a real-world example of the possibilities of Project Tango, consider the game Ghostly Mansion.
“Holding the Project Tango device to manifest your Will, you move through your ghostly 3D mansion, as you moved in your corporeal state, turning around to see things behind, moving closer to see things up close,” the game’s description reads. “You are trapped in a series of rooms, to escape you must find the important items in each room. Where did you leave that key?”
When you’re using augmented reality apps, you aren’t just a player in a game. You’re interacting with your world, and the game’s world, and it’s all one seamless piece of wonder — and we’re still in the early stages.
After all, Project Tango is weird and exciting and still in development, just like the rest of AR. And frankly, we’re excited to see what the future holds.
What are your thoughts about augmented reality? What do you want to see from AR technology? Let us know in the comments.