AR: what is it and why is it interesting

Due to countless technological (r)evolutions, Augmented Reality is increasingly entering our living environment. What is it and what possibilities does it offer?

Augmented Reality (AR) integrates the virtual world into the existing one using overlays, i.e. layers. This is a big difference with Virtual Reality, where the user enters a completely virtual world via a headset. AR also requires a device to layer reality. For many applications, powerful tablets or smartphones are sufficient to take the virtual world over the real one. Just think of the wildly popular hunt for Pokémon. Other applications achieve AR through glasses. Several major brands such as Google and Apple are expected to bring such glasses to market in the foreseeable future.

Early period of AR

Sensorama, that name doesn’t mean anything to you? Most likely not, although the bombastic device is the origin of Augmented Reality. In addition to a 3D film, the viewer was also treated to scent sensations and wind in the face. The year is 1962. In that blessed year, the Hughes Aircraft Company developed the Electrocular, one of the first head-mounted displays. The electro-eyepiece provided pilots with information via a TV signal on an eyepiece.

Source: Researchgate Creative Commons — Attribution 4.0 International — CC BY 4.0

Computer scientist Ivan Sutherland took a decisive step in development in 1968 with his headset. Although his ‘Sword of Damocles’ was heavy, it allowed users to step into a virtual space thanks to computer-generated graphics and widescreen.

From the 1970s onwards, the devices shrank under the influence of Myron Krueger’s Videoplace, Microsoft Kinect and other portable computing systems such as the EyeTap that were able to superimpose text and images over the real world. Improved computer performance in the 1990s led to major advances in industrial and military applications of AR. For example, BARS (Battlefield Augmented Reality System) from the US Naval Research Laboratory was involved in the development of portable systems for soldiers.

AR from 2000

The commercial world has long seen the possibilities of AR in various applications.

At the beginning of this millennium, AR developed mainly in less obvious sectors such as the world of sports. Hawk Eye first appeared in 2001 during a cricket match. A ball’s trajectory is recorded by cameras and then superimposed over a real image as a digital overlay. The hotly contested VAR in football is another, albeit more recent, example of AR in sport.

The commercial world has long seen the possibilities of AR in various applications. It is, for example, possible to send viewers of sports matches personal messages, for example via the boardings along a football pitch. The automotive sector also jumped on the bandwagon. BMW turned a magazine into a live stage for the presentation of a new model, simply by holding the page in front of a webcam.

The gaming world couldn’t miss out and PlayStation came up with EyeToy in 2003. In their own words, a first foray into the world of AR. Microsoft tried it with Kinect, without success and around 2010 the interest died down, especially because the development in VR took a steep flight purely in terms of games.

Where is AR today?

Today’s augmented reality developments are found mainly in business. Microsoft dusted off Kinect under the name Azure Kinect and uses it in the Azure cloud. Other parts of the technology were used in the development of the AR glasses HoloLens. It is already used in many industrial scenarios today. Even on the International Space Station, the glasses have a place.

ar hololens
In practice, Microsoft’s Hololens has a narrower AR field of view, as the illustration suggests.

Two major competitors are developing AR glasses. Google will start real tests with glasses from August. A public launch is not yet in sight. The IT giant does not set a date for the release because it wants to avoid a debacle like with Google Glass. That concept failed years ago, partly due to privacy concerns and the disappointing technical operation of the glasses. In addition, the radiation from the glasses so close to the eye was a problem. An even bigger problem was that there was no demonstrable use for the glasses at the time.

It is especially looking forward to Apple’s AR glasses. Although you don’t have to expect these AR glasses in the store until 2024, because Apple might not release a revamped version of the VR headset until 2023.

How does it work?

Augmented Reality works with recognition of the environment via AR glasses, smartphone or other device. Recognition can be done in two ways: marker-based or markerless.

Cursor-based ARapplications use control points within a given space. These ‘markers’ determine where the app should place the digital 3D content within the user’s field of view. The first applications in AR were based on this technology. For AR to work in this form, the camera must be constantly pointing at the cursor. Examples are social media filters.

Markerless ARapplications place virtual 3D objects in the real image environment by examining various parameters in real time. This type of guidance is based on the hardware of a smartphone or tablet such as a camera, GPS or gyroscope. The AR software completes the work. No object tracking is required in this system. ARKit (Apple) and ARCore SDK (Google), among others, made AR available on their smart devices. Markerless AR can be divided into four categories:

  • Location-based AR uses a user’s location to then add virtual images to the screen. The game Pokémon Go is one of the most famous applications of this.
  • Projection-based AR places the user in a specific room equipped with a fixed projector and tracking camera. With this technique, complex tasks in business or industry are possible without computers because instructions can be placed directly on the product or machine. At the same time, this technology is able to provide feedback to optimize production cycles.
  • Overlay AR replaces the original image with an almost updated image. This technique makes it possible to get multiple views of a target object or to show more information about it.
  • Contour-based AR creates an overview of certain objects to facilitate situations. Car navigation systems, for example, embrace this technology for safe driving, even in situations where visibility is limited.

Counting on 5G

To completely break through the AR technology, the developers are looking forward to the rollout of (private) 5G networks. AR needs stable connections and powerful computers. For connectivity, 5G should provide the solution. The ultra-low latency (the time it takes to send data from the source to the receiver and get a response) and the high bandwidth are critical. For many industrial users, private 5G solutions enable applications to perform mission-critical processes. Today, public grids often do not provide sufficient capacity, or are not considered secure enough.

Applications in marketing, industry, remote interventions, training and tourism will become faster and more precise thanks to 5G. 5G is ten times faster than 4G and allows for more stable connections. Additionally, remote interactions will be close to real-time due to the improved latency.

Studies have shown that the total AR market in 2020 was worth $12.5 billion. That number is expected to rise to more than $85 billion by 2026.

A few applications in an instant

The future of AR is undoubtedly much longer than just the gaming world. Applications in industry, marketing and other domains have existed for some time or are in full development. Companies can use AR in many ways via a headset, smartphone or tablet:

Product visualization: visualization of products via AR has many advantages. For example, a designer can literally walk around a model to make improvements to the prototype. On the other hand, users can see products where they ultimately want them in their home, office or wherever.

Production process: AR is not only suitable for visualizing (almost) finished installations. AR is also useful during the production process, for example to visualize machines, make adjustments and so on.

Better assembly process: AR during assembly creates a more efficient process, ensuring workers follow all steps to assemble complex products. They see the instructions in front of them, with possibly corresponding markings of important components. That way, they don’t have to train for so long.

Education, training, further education: As in space travel and military or other training, AR can simplify the training or further training of (new) employees.

Manuals: through AR assistance, people can be guided in actions on a machine or any other device.

Marketing tool: In marketing, the AR possibilities are endless. The customer can compose a product himself, ‘experience’ the device in real time and so on. It goes way beyond the WOW factor. The technology allows users to see the final products in the space where they want to place them.

AR at fairs: With AR, a company no longer needs to send tons of material to a trade show or conference. A headset or other device takes the user to each step of a production process, to a specific destination or anywhere.

game: Of course, the gaming factor remains very important for AR. Here, too, there are opportunities for companies to engage their employees and/or customers through games or applications.

Expensive cost picture

It goes without saying that developing AR apps costs a lot of money. Numbers don’t always say everything, but in this case quite a lot. Depending on the functionality and techniques used, development costs from a few thousand euros for an overall simple app to a multiple of this for more sophisticated apps. The more complex the application, the more work and therefore more expensive.

Studies have shown that the total AR market in 2020 was worth $12.5 billion. That number is expected to rise to more than $85 billion by 2026.

All super people

AR is on the verge of breaking through into everyone’s daily life, not just in business or the medical world, but in all aspects of society. Where the time was not yet ripe in the 1990s and around 2010, it will be in 2022. The technology is there, big players like Google, Apple, Meta and other Microsofts or LGs are working hard on the digital hardware.

also read

VR in your business: from hype to essential

Why do they do that? Quite simply, Augmented Reality will give us all, from doctors to engineers and astronauts to John the Hood, superpowers. The power of knowledge, science, insight, guidance… everything becomes more accessible. Once the headset has been established, and it can be faster than you think, there is nothing standing in the way of a whole new world. The metaverse in practice.

An ‘Augmented’ world is on its way, with a lot of opportunities for all areas of society. At the same time, the risks involved should not be underestimated. The technology provides large players with a lot of information about, among other things, our lifestyle and our health, so crystal-clear, strict demarcation is an absolute necessity. A scary future? Get used to it and enjoy it.

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