Apple’s September iPhone event and Google’s Pixel 2 début not only launched the latest versions of their smartphones, but also unveiled their foray into augmented reality. Suddenly, AR is the talk of the town. Like virtual reality (VR), AR is a technology that has been in development for quite a while. However, it has seen a consumer release, in the form of smartphone camera AR and a few consoles, with the most popular application of it being Pokemon Go. Like the smartphone changed our lives as we know it over the course of several years, AR is poised to shake things up in the not-so-distant future.
What is augmented reality?
Science fiction has been the main driving force in the move towards perfect AR. Remember Minority Report , where Tom Cruise blows up images and moving elements around on a holographic computer? Even in Iron Man , Tony Stark manipulates his computer, Jarvis, creating his titular armoured suits as if he was working in physical space. That is where AR aims to be at.
Current variations of AR use your phone or tablet’s camera to detect the real world and overlay 3D objects over it. The most common is the tech used in social apps like Snapchat, that change your face using masks that orient themselves and animate based on the movement of your facial features and muscles. There are advanced AR glasses that are being tested, like Microsoft’s HoloLens or Google’s Glass — which render the user interface, games as well as digital objects, on to the real world.
The birth of mixed reality
Microsoft, using their HoloLens technology, has opened the door to external manufacturers like Samsung, Asus, Lenovo and many more to manufacture a hybrid between augmented reality and virtual reality. This new technology — known as mixed reality — aims to wrap the next versions of Windows around you in a virtual space. So, in the near future, you will use specially created motion controllers to navigate around the operating system.
In last week’s ‘Visualise the Virtual’ story, we saw how artists are using VR to create stunning live 3D art and installations, as well as model 3D objects. With mixed reality, it will be fun to see both those worlds intersect, where artists can create art in relation to their surroundings.
Using advanced technologies like TrueDepth cameras as well as a dedicated AR chip and a brand new AR SDK, Apple is betting big on augmented reality — showing working versions of a battle taking place on a desk, as well as treating us to shots where giant dinosaurs invade the real world. They also showed off animated emojis which let you record facial animation and sound, cleverly lip syncing your words onto the sticker. Let’s see what magic and make-believe developers come up with, once they get knee-deep into the ARKit SDK.
Google has launched their own ARCore on Pixel. In addition to this, they already have their own Tango augmented reality project, for which two phones have already come out from Lenovo and Asus. Pixel 2’s launch event debuted new AR stickers, with the hosts applying the Stranger Things Demogorgon sticker in real time. Google also showed off a League of Legends game plotted out on a desk in real 3D space. You could arrange your furniture in real time with the Houzz AR app, or build your own Lego creations through AR, without the mess of blocks.
HoloLens, while unquestionably breakthrough hardware, is nowhere near affordable. Enter Meta, a marginally affordable headset from a very young startup, that is designed and developed in conjunction with neuroscientists, creating augmented reality holographic interfaces that Meta claims are photo-realistic. They already have a really cool-looking Development Kit 2 out.
What’s it all for
These tech giants are targeting the entertainment and social space, with games, fun apps and advanced filters. The educational space is ripe as well, where you can convert your living room into the Sistine Chapel, or get a bird’s eye view into Ancient Egypt when learning history, or get information overlays in real time when visiting zoos.
AR’s most obvious application is military, as soldiers can get instant battlefield awareness with real-time satellite data and updates on their objectives. Even better, controlling and operating remote drones and robots from a distance. With medicine, telesurgery is possible through AR, allowing surgeons to perform complex surgery using robotics on the other end, controlled remotely through mixed reality goggles. The possibilities are endless and there are forays into these spaces — as research and development forges on at a breakneck speed.
For the consumer
There is a small trickle of consumer AR headsets already entering the market, though it would be wise not to buy them now. AR goggles are still in very early stages, with the best hardware only accessible to the higher echelons of enterprise customers. For now, it looks like the next few years are going to be all AR from your smartphone.
This is the second of a two-part series on the state of AR and VR