Augmented reality and virtual reality are reality technologies that either enhance or replace a real-life environment with a simulated one.
- Augmented reality (AR) augments your surroundings by adding digital elements to a live view, often by using the camera on a smartphone.
- Virtual reality (VR) is a completely immersive experience that replaces a real-life environment with a simulated one.
In AR, a virtual environment is designed to coexist with the real environment, with the goal of being informative and providing additional data about the real world, which a user can access without having to do a search. For example, industrial AR apps could offer instant troubleshooting information when a handset is aimed at a piece of failing equipment.
Virtual reality encompasses a complete environmental simulation that replaces the user’s world with an entirely virtual world. Because these virtual environments are entirely fabricated, they are often designed to be larger than life. For example, VR could let a user box with a cartoon version of Mike Tyson in a virtual boxing ring.
While both virtual reality and augmented reality are designed to bring a simulated environment to the user, each concept is unique and involves different use cases. In addition to entertainment scenarios, augmented reality is also increasingly being used by businesses, because of its ability to generate informational overlays that add useful, real-world scenarios.
We’ll delve into how both of these reality technologies work, with a specific focus on the business cases for AR, in the sections that follow.
The differences between AR and VR
While both technologies involve simulated reality, AR and VR rely on different underlying components and generally serve different audiences.
In virtual reality, the user almost always wears an eye-covering headset and headphones to completely replace the real world with the virtual one. The idea of VR is to eliminate the real world as much as possible and insulate the user from it. Once inside, the VR universe can be coded to provide just about anything, ranging from a light saber battle with Darth Vader to a realistic (yet wholly invented) recreation of earth. While VR has some business applications in product design, training, architecture and retail, today the majority of VR applications are built around entertainment, especially gaming.
Augmented reality, on the other hand, integrates the simulated world with the real one. In most applications the user relies on a smartphone or tablet screen to accomplish this, aiming the phone’s camera at a point of interest, and generating a live-streaming video of that scene on the screen. The screen is then overlaid with helpful information, which includes implementations such as repair instructions, navigation information or diagnostic data.
However, AR can also be used in entertainment applications. The mobile game Pokemon Go, in which players attempt to capture virtual creatures while moving around in the real world, is a classic example.
Examples of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality
Augmented reality entails abundant — and growing — use cases. Here are some actual applications you can engage with today.
- Ikea Place is a mobile app that allows you to envision Ikea furniture in your own home, by overlaying a 3D representation of the piece atop a live video stream of your room.
- YouCam Makeup lets users virtually try on real-life cosmetics via a living selfie.
- Repair technicians can don a headset that walks them through the steps of fixing or maintaining a broken piece of equipment, diagramming exactly where each part goes and the order in which to do things.
- Various sports are relying on augmented reality to provide real-time statistics and improve physical training for athletes.
Beyond gaming and other entertainment cases, some business examples of virtual reality include:
- Architects are using VR to design homes — and let clients “walk through” before the foundation has ever been laid.
- Automobiles and other vehicles are increasingly being designed in VR.
- Firefighters, soldiers and other workers in hazardous environments are using VR to train without putting themselves at risk.
A Brief History of AR & VR
While primitive virtual reality systems got their start in the 1950s and 1960s, the concepts of VR and AR began to gain momentum in military applications during the early 1980s. Motion pictures such as Tron, The Matrix and Minority Report all offered futuristic riffs on how these technologies would evolve in the years to come.
The first mainstream attempt at releasing a VR headset was the Sega VR in 1993, an add-on to the Sega Genesis gaming system. While it never made it to market, it did stoke consumer interest in the technology. It would not be until the Oculus Rift in 2010 that a VR headset would be successful with a consumer audience — though today these devices remain expensive and largely of interest to niche, gaming-focused users.
Augmented reality splintered from virtual reality around 1990, and was brought to the public’s attention in 1998, when TV broadcasters began overlaying a yellow line on the football field to better indicate the distance to a first down. Over the next decade, various apps around AR technology were designed for both military use (such as in fighter jet cockpits) and consumer use, when print magazines and packaged goods began embedding QR codes that could be scanned with a consumer’s cell phone, making the product “come alive” with a short 3D video.
In 2014, Google rolled out Google Glass, with an eye toward equipping everyone with a head-mounted display AR device. The AR headset, which was controlled via voice and touch gestures, was met with skepticism and criticism, attributed to the new reality that people were recording video 24/7 in public. Privacy suddenly became a major talking point in consumer AR. Google ultimately suspended the project and relaunched it a few years later with enterprise users in mind.
The Role of Augmented Reality om Business
Today, business and enterprise use cases are the predominant reality applications for AR. Some key examples include:
- Design and construction — Arguably the most common and fruitful application for AR today, designers are using augmented reality to see what hypothetical products (or structures) look like in real environments and to make virtual tweaks to existing products without ever laying a hand on them.
- Maintenance and repairs — AR technology can guide technicians through the steps of repairing, upgrading, and maintaining a wide range of products, ranging from industrial equipment to entire buildings. AR allows technicians to work on equipment without having to refer to printed manuals or websites, overlaying detailed instructions – often visual – atop the machinery itself.
- Training and education — Businesses are using AR technology to provide an immersive experience when training employees, allowing them to more comprehensively visualize new products and concepts. Schools are following suit.
- Healthcare — AR technology has made its way into the surgery room, with overlays showing the critical steps of an operation, patients' vital statistics, and more.
- Retail — From virtual makeup to virtual changing rooms, businesses are using AR to give retail shoppers a revamped, modernized augmented reality experience when shopping.
- Technology — Products like Splunk AR bring AR to major utility companies to improve responses during power outages, and gain full visibility into the entirety of their data.
- Marketing — AR concepts on packaging, point-of-sale materials, and even billboards give businesses a brand new — and much more memorable — way to interact directly with customers.
Common components of an augmented reality system
Augmented reality varies depending on implementation, but the most common components include the following, categorized by hardware and software.
These hardware components comprise the backbone of augmented reality. Some of these components might already be supported if you are engaging in AR with your smartphone (more in the following section):
- Processor – Augmented reality requires significant processing power to create the imagery needed and place it in the proper location for it to appear to exist in a real-world environment. Processors may be incorporated in a mobile handset or embedded into a wearable device (more on this below).
- Display – In AR, imagery is created and then populated on some form of display. This can take several forms, depending on the specific application. These include:
- Mobile handheld device – The smartphone or tablet screen is arguably the most common way in which AR hologram imagery is viewed. A user points his or her phone’s camera at a point of interest, and the live video hologram generated by the camera lens is overlaid with AR information.
- Wearable device – Smart glasses such as Google Glass, Vuzix Blade, and Solos Smart Glasses are all designed as standard eyeglasses that also contain a small display only visible to the wearer. The person wearing the augmented reality headset can see the real world by looking straight through the lenses of the goggles, while the embedded display provides an informational overlay. VR headsets are less common in AR environments because they do not allow the wearer to see the real world directly; instead, it has to be recreated in video and displayed on the built-in screen, which is otherwise opaque.
- Automotive HUDs – HUDs, or heads-up displays, are systems that use your car’s windshield as a screen. A device projects an image – speed, directions, etc. – from the dashboard upwards onto the windshield. The driver sees the reflection of this imagery as it bounces off the glass like a mirror.
- Others — Looking ahead, more futuristic devices like smart contact lenses and systems that can project an image directly onto the retina may become viable.
- Camera – As the primary sensor required for AR to function, the camera feeds the live video to the processor, which detects key facets of the environment on which the AR data is overlaid. The camera itself does not process any of the digital information; it merely provides the video feed.
- Other sensors – AR is often designed for motion, so additional sensor types are required for operation. These may include spatial sensors, such as accelerometers and digital compasses, which indicate the direction the camera is facing; GPS sensors, which track the user’s location in the world; microphones, which incorporate audio data into the simulation: and LiDaR, which uses lasers to measure exact distance.
- Input devices – A user on the move is often not at liberty to type commands into a computer. As such, AR systems have been devised to work with numerous types of input technologies. Foremost is the mobile device touchscreen, providing a natural interaction if a phone or tablet is available. Other options include voice recognition technology, so users can control the system via speech, and gesture recognition systems, which typically translate the motion of the user’s hand into commands.
Several types of software algorithms are needed to enable augmented reality. Broadly, these include:
- Image registration – Software that takes a photographic representation of one’s surroundings and uses that information to determine various real-world coordinates and objects within it. Image registration maps the real world and determines what is in the foreground vs. what is in the background, where one object ends and another begins, and points of interest as well as additional information.
- 3D rendering – With the real world mapped and categorized, the next step is overlaying the augmented reality information on top of it. The 3D renderer creates virtual objects and places them into the appropriate location within the live image. The programming language Augmented Reality Markup Language (ARML) is the current standard for setting the location and appearance of a virtual object.
- Content management – Content management is a back-end technology incorporating a system that maintains a database of virtual objects and 3D models.
- Interface – Whether it’s a video game or a technical management tool, the interface is the intermediary between the user and the video representation of the augmented reality environment.
- Development toolkits – A variety of open source and proprietary technologies are used to give programmers a framework for building AR applications on the platform of their choice.
Using AR on Mobile Devices
If you encounter an AR application today, it will probably be in the form of a mobile phone app: any smartphone owner has access to hundreds of AR applications on iPhone or Android mobile phones without the need for any additional hardware. All the core software capabilities needed to enable AR are built into the operating system.
In a typical use case, the AR user launches an application on his or her mobile phone or tablet. Most AR apps are fairly simple in design. The user just aims the mobile phone or device at a point of interest and waits for the application to populate the screen with additional context. This could be anything from walking directions to the identity of stars in the sky to dance steps.
Hundreds of AR applications are available on mobile devices
Challenges for Business and Technology
AR and VR are still in their infancy, and they have a long timeline of development ahead of them before they become true mainstream technologies. Some of the most frequently cited technology and business challenges include:
- Limited mobile processing capability – Mobile handsets have limited processing power, but tethering a user to a desktop or server isn’t realistic. Either mobile processing power will have to expand, or the work will have to be offloaded to the cloud.
- Limited mobile bandwidth – While cloud-based processing offers a compelling potential solution to the mobile processing bottleneck, mobile phone bandwidth is still too slow in most places to offer the necessary real-time video processing. This will likely change as mobile bandwidth improves.
- Complex development – Designing an AR or VR application is costly and complicated. Development tools will need to become more user-friendly to make these technologies accessible to programmers.
- VR hardware’s inconvenience – Putting on a virtual reality headset and clearing a room often detracts from the user experience. VR input devices, in the form of modified gaming controllers, can also often be unintuitive, with a steep learning curve.
- Building a business model – Outside of video gaming, many AR and VR applications remain in early stages of development with unproven viability in the business world.
- Security and privacy issues – The backlash over the original Google Glass proved that the mainstream remains skeptical about the proliferation of cameras and their privacy implications. How are video feeds secured, and are copies stored somewhere?
Despite these challenges, however, significant progress is being made to expand both business and commercial use cases for AR and VR, and further drive them into the mainstream.
What's next for AR and VR?
AR and VR have a decidedly bright future, and the years to come will bring many new capabilities and more widespread usage.
Improvements in video quality, processing power, mobile bandwidth, and AR/VR hardware will drive more mainstream acceptance, and falling development costs and complexity will provide more options for creators to explore. Systems that track eye movement and facial expressions will slowly make clunky joysticks and other controllers obsolete.
While video gaming and entertainment will continue to drive this market, AR and VR will also see emerging practical applications. In the world of virtual reality, these include fully virtual surgery, in which surgeons perform their jobs only in a simulated environment and robotic systems do the actual work. In the world of AR, the ability to virtually travel anywhere is made possible by an emerging tech platform called Mirrorworld, which aims to replicate the physical universe on a 1:1 scale.
Education will likely continue to shift to a virtual model on AR and VR platforms both in academia and in the corporate world. And finally, retailers will continue to rely on AR applications to upgrade virtual shopping applications, slowly rendering the need for physical storefronts obsolete.
The Bottom Line: AR and VR are poised for growth
AR and VR are both fairly niche technologies today, but both have impressive futures ahead of them as they mature. With increasing momentum around innovative VR video games and AR navigation aids, consumers are increasingly ready to experiment with future applications of these technologies. In industry, AR especially is finding applications in everything from design to maintenance to healthcare.
Looking ahead, it will be exciting to see what new AR- and VR-driven tools come to fruition.
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