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Introduction to Augmented Reality

The dictionary defines ‘augmented’ as something that has been increased in size or value by adding something to it or something made larger or fuller. Augmented reality (AR) therefore literally means enhancing the reality. The term augmented reality was coined by Boeing researcher Thomas Caudell in 1990. He used the term in relation to the industrial use of AR at Boeing. The most common definition of AR is that it is a digital overlay on top of the real world that includes computer graphics, text, video and audio that is interactive in real time. Ronald Azuma, the pioneer of AR states that “AR allows the user to see the real world with virtual objects superimposed or composited with the real world. AR therefore supplements reality, rather than completely replacing it.” In this sense, it can also be defined as a combination of real and computer generated digital information into the user’s view of the physical world in such a way that they appear as one environment. By integrating and aligning real and virtual objects through a virtual layer that can add computer generated digital elements such as images, videos, etc. this technology therefore results in an enhanced (i.e. augmented) physical world. Another way of defining AR is that it is a technology that it is based on a camera that is able to capture real world data and combine information from real and virtual sources into one perception.

Augmented reality is not a thing, but a concept that is increasingly becoming a ubiquitous part of our lives, just like mobile phones and electricity. Augmented reality (AR) has the potential to disrupt the way we conduct our lives. It is indeed a new medium rather than just a new technology that will change people’s lives and affect sectors as diverse as healthcare, retail, education, industrial design, and the military. A simple example of AR at work is an app developed by a furniture mall. With the app, you can see how a particular piece of furniture will look like in your home. In short, the app uses real info (your home settings) and superimposes their info (the furniture piece) to give you an augmented sense of reality.

One of the best examples of how augmented reality can be immersive is the popular Pokémon GO game. It uses a smartphone’s camera, gyroscope, clock and GPS to enable a location-based augmented reality environment. The game makes use of position sensors to display digital pocket monsters on users' screens so the creatures appear as though they're really looming overhead or perched on a park bench. It created quite a stir when it was launched in July 2016, and is already the biggest mobile game ever released in the U.S. This game, launched in parts of the world later on, demonstrated how AR can be used as a powerful tool.

How AR Works

Now that we have conceptually discussed what AR is and seen a couple of examples of AR at work, let us understand how it works.
AR has three characteristics associated with it:

i. It combines the real and the virtual
ii. It is interactive in real time
iii. It seamlessly aligns virtual objects into 3D space in the real world

Accurate registration and alignment of the virtual objects is the key to properly create the illusion of AR; without it the illusion of virtual objects existing in the physical world is compromised. AR technology traditionally works by tracking a target in the real world using a camera and software on a compatible device like a smartphone. These targets can include things like an icon, an image, an object, a sound, a location or even a person. The software processes target data and compares it against a database of potentially corresponding information. If there’s a match, an AR experience is triggered and content is superimposed on top of reality. Like all new technologies, AR is improving too. The first version of AR was all about a digital layering on top of reality. However, it was mostly static; the view hardly changed. As AR technology progresses, it is creating a more immersive, integrated and interactive experience. Today’s AR applications combine both the real and virtual worlds into the user’s visualization of the physical world in real time. Consequently, product simulation, sound, GPS data and media richness contribute to experimental value, with AR enabling consumers to interact with virtual products.

Who uses AR?
Since AR enhances user experience, it has almost limitless potential. Retailers can benefit from improving customers’ visualization of products, increase engagement and enhance perceptions of their shopping experience. In turn, this can lead to a deeper level of engagement, enjoyment and satisfaction. Large companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google, Samsung, etc. are investing into AR for this reason. The heart of the AR is the head mounted displays (HMDs) that make everything possible. Companies like Sony, HTC, Google, Microsoft, Apple have invested in R&D for making such HMDs. As more and more fully immersive AR devices are becoming commercially available, organizations are set to reach more and more masses. The total market for HMDs – and a result AR - is projected to reach about Rs. 1750 billion by the year 2022. With today’s technology, even smartphones can now be easily trans-formed into HMDs using low-cost peripherals. Indeed, the increased immersion and the blurring of lines between the virtual world and reality present huge growth potential. Retail companies implement AR to create product demos, interactive advertising and provide real-time information to customers.

One of the major sectors that have latched onto AR is industrial manufacturing. It is poised to be one of the most significant areas of AR expansion in the near future. AR is an essential component of Industry 4.0, as the latest industrial revolution is called. Manufacturers can develop targeted hardware and applications that can help their workspace train more quickly, work faster, access data more easily and help avoid errors. All these benefits can lead to massive improvements in a company's bottom line, making AR usage within industrial settings a match made in heaven. Apart from industry, AR is also useful in the field of medicine, education and entertainment. We will cover more on how AR benefits various sectors in a subsequent article.

Are there any disadvantages to using AR? At this point of time, a few things still need to be worked out. For one, the cost involved in developing a good AR experience, especially in the field of entertainment, is still on the higher side. Privacy is another concern that needs to be tackled properly. Extreme use of AR can also affect your eyesight adversely.

Augmented Reality (AR) Development Kits / software
For any AR application, an interface that will interpret the virtual and real environment concurrently is required. This interface is sold as a software package.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of AR applications that can be developed – location based and marker based. Location based AR apps detect the user's position with the help of a GPS or something similar and overlay the augmented reality objects on top of real physical places. The marker based AR apps are based on image recognition, and use black and white markers as triggers to display AR content.

Whatever the type, you need a software development kit (SDK) to develop AR apps. App developers utilize AR libraries with open source / commercial API to break down the stages of development. A few criteria to choose the right AR SDK include cost, platform support, image recognition and tracking support, etc.

One of the leading AR software tool available today is PTC Vuforia. A few salient features of Vuforia include reorganization of multiple objects, supports 2D and 3D recognition, turns static images into full motion video and supports extending tracking. In addition, PTC Vuforia supports both cloud and local storage.

Improvements to HDMs and awareness of the utility of AR in all walks of life are big positives for this field, which is set to revolutionize the way we work in the very near future. Needless to say, awareness for AR in India is growing too.