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What is Augmented Reality?

Eye Movement Control
Users can control the display of these data glasses with their eye movements.
Credit: Fraunhofer COMEDD

Augmented reality effectively blurs the line between what is real and what is generated by a computer. The basic concept behind augmented reality is that images and sounds are superimposed over what the user experiences in the real world, effectively striving toward a "Minority Report" or "Iron Man" style of interactivity.

This type of reality should not be confused with virtual reality. Virtual reality creates computer-generated environments for you to interact in while maintaining a sense of immersion. Augmented reality (also known as AR), on the other hand, tends toward realism and adds visual, audio and other sensory to the natural world as it exists now.

True augmented reality

In 2009, the MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces Group presented what was called SixthSense, a device that combined the use of a camera, small projector, smartphone and mirror. The device hangs from the user’s chest in a lanyard fashion from the neck. Four sensor devices on the user's fingers can be used to manipulate the images projected by SixthSense.

Another device of note is Google Glass, an augmented reality device shaped into a set of glasses. It displays on the user’s lens screen via a small projector and responds to voice commands, overlaying images, videos and sounds onto the screen for only the user to experience.

Augmented reality on your phone

While few people can afford such devices, many consumers already have an augmented reality device: the smartphone. Technically, smartphones use more primitive versions of augmented reality, but the end result remains the same. One app called Layar uses both the smartphone’s GPS as well as its camera to collect information about the user’s surroundings. It then displays information about nearby restaurants, stores and points of interest. Many more apps exist that offer a similar style of augmented reality, though nowhere near to the level of devices like SixthSense or Google Glass.

The future of augmented reality

Augmented reality is finding a welcome home in glasses, contact lenses and wearable devices like SixthSense. Few users want to rely on cell phones to experience these added sensory enhancements because of the small screen and the fact you have to carry the device in your hand. The ultimate goal of augmented reality is to create a convenient and natural immersion. Google Glass is the first foray into visual equipment, and may eventually integrate the same functionality as SixthSense and vice versa. Another recent innovation is Technical Illusions' Cast AR glasses, which immerse players into video games.

Many predict the technology behind augmented reality devices will continue to change at a rapid rate, eventually paving the way to potential privacy issues. For example, simply pointing one’s Google Glasses at an individual could allow them to instantly look up everything about that person, from Facebook pages to LinkedIn profiles.

At the same time, such devices could allow you to do the same for learning more about cities and sites you visit. Augmented reality could even progress to the point of aiding in many professions, from allowing construction engineers to visually place notes where structural elements should go via GPS to doctors creating a visual X-ray overlay on patients to identify locations of injuries.

The potential application of virtual reality is unlimited; it simply becomes a matter of developing the technology to support each use.

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