The Future is Now: A Dummies’ Guide to Augmented Reality

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Entertainment giant Disney has recently released an augmented reality app. Disney Infinity Action! will allow its users to record short films starring themselves and a cast of Disney characters. It’s being released to promote Disney Infinity, the company’s new sandbox title. Furniture giant Ikea is also planning to release their own AR app: using the catalogue as a marker, users can place virtual items of furniture in their homes. A pretty useful feature, potentially, since 14% of buyers have apparently bought items too big for the room it’s going to be living in. But what is augmented reality? It sounds like something from some distant future to the uninitiated…but put away your Delorean keys, because augmented reality is not only a present-day technology: it’s already being used in a wide variety of ways.

In a nutshell augmented reality (often abbreviated to AR) is a way of inserting virtual items (be they graphics, text or even audio) into the real world through a piece of technology. Unlike, say, a film with special effects, this insertion happens in real time and for an individual rather than a group of people. It could be via a smartphone, tablet or even a handheld games console. AR can be be used as a source of information about your surroundings, an advertising tool, or a source of entertainment.

On a mobile device such as a smartphone, augmented reality often works by using your geographical location, or more accurately your phone’s GPS capabilities. It gathers information about where you are and layers information over the world as you see it through your phone’s camera. You might tell it to look for restaurants, for instance, and the app will display a list of restaurants (and their ratings) on your screen. You might also be able to scan a building to see if any of the companies within it are hiring, find photos of it on Flickr or get a potted history from the internet.

In advertisements and gaming, AR works a little differently. It detects an AR marker- a symbol designed to trigger some sort of special effect on your screen. The Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita each come with a small deck of AR cards, inscribed with symbols. When these cards are placed in view of the console’s camera and the right software is booted up, graphics will appear on and around the card that you can interact with. In a magazine, an AR marker could cause graphics to move on the page, or provide links to videos by tapping on the touchscreen when prompted.

So, augmented reality is certainly an exciting idea, filled with potential applications. But there’s also a strong business case for the technology: according to AR app developer Layar, people are 135% more likely to buy something if AR is used in the advertising. And AR apps will have generated $5.2billion in revenue by 2017.

Are there any downsides to the technology? Well, not yet: in its current state, AR could be seen as a cool feature at best and an annoying gimmick at worst. But if it were to be combined with, say, facial recognition software AR could become a serious concern regarding privacy- a concern we’ve seen voiced in the presence of Google Glass and its always-available cameras. It may be possible in the future to scan someone’s facial features and access things like their Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, which may not be things you want to broadcast to a wider audience. Even more worryingly, writers like Charlie Brooker have denounced augmented reality as a means of filtering out the parts of reality we don’t want to see, even though this side of the technology is even further away.

For now, augmented reality is a harmless, interesting piece of software that adds a thin layer of pizazz to everyday life. It’s demonstrated its utility in advertising, entertainment and exploration, and it’s likely to grow more popular in the future.



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