AR tech is in a bit of a weird place right now. A couple of years back there’s been a lot of talk about augmented reality, but now the hype has died down and widespread adoption is nowhere to be seen. So, who’s actually using AR? What for? And why isn’t it more widely available? Let’s take a closer look at this technology and examine its potential.
A brief history of AR
The history of AR goes back decades — to the dawn of computer graphics as a whole. The first head-mounted eye-tracking display was developed in the 1960s by Ivan Sutherland and his team at Harvard. This contraption, dubbed “The Sword of Damocles”, was far from consumer-friendly. It was heavy, its various add-ons didn’t play well with each other, and the graphics were primitive. Still, it was a breakthrough, considering how young the computer industry itself was back then. Sutherland’s work became a foundation for all future experiments in AR and VR.
During the decade that followed, a number of people took note of how such tech could be utilized to combine computer-generated graphics and real-time video feeds. To describe this relationship between the real and the imaginary, Canadian researcher Steven Mann coined the term “computer-mediated reality”. After laying down the foundations of what is now known as AR, he began work on the world’s first pair of smart glasses.
Potential applications of the technology intrigued many people, but it wouldn’t be until the 1990s when AR saw any commercial use. That’s when Louis Rosenberg of the US Air Force suggested utilizing it to help soldiers communicate and navigate. Despite the limits of the 90s hardware, the military was interested in the project, and allocated funds necessary for Rosenberg and his team to develop the first immersive AR headset in history.
As mobile gadgets with cameras and LCDs became ubiquitous, more and more people became interested in utilising this tech. 2014 saw the highly publicised introduction of Google Glass, a pair of glasses with a heads-up display. In 2016 Microsoft unveiled HoloLens, its take on creating an augmented working environment. That same year, Niantic launched Pokémon GO, a popular mobile game with AR functionality.
In the years since, Google Glass died and spawned a myriad of similarly unsuccessful clones and HoloLens quietly received a hardware upgrade. So, what is going on with AR?
The good news is that AR hasn’t gone anywhere.
AR as a business tool
Since the early days of AR, researchers wanted to use it as a tool. Steven Mann’s ‘smart glasses’ from the '80s were developed to help welders work without endangering their eyesight. As time has proven, many other professionals could use the help of a computer to do their job better. A lot has been said about the potential of AR to transform medical fields and make surgeries safer. During the surgery, AR equipment provides doctors with visual cues, as well as important info on the patient’s wellbeing. Lots of startups have already received millions of dollars to perfect this idea and bring it to market.
Manufacturing is another industry that has seen a degree of AR adoption. CAD software developers incorporate AR capabilities into their apps to help engineers see what their projects would look like in real life. Google Glass, however dead it may be to the public, is still being sold to enterprises and helps factory workers assemble complex machinery at a faster pace.
Last, but not least, Microsoft is quietly making history with its HoloLens headset. The second version of this device, unveiled earlier this year with a $3500 price tag, is a sneak peek at what the future of user interfaces could look like. Just like Google Glass, it is targeted at enterprise customers in construction, manufacturing, and medical fields. However, it’s a full-fledged computer, with a browser and applications we expect of a PC.
AR for safety and education
Regular consumers are also increasingly targeted by AR companies. The education market has seen a number of AR tools designed to make learning more interactive and accessible. With 3D AR content flashcards, a child reading about dinosaurs can view a 3D model of said animal. AR apps for adults in STEM and medical training are also becoming increasingly common. Anatomy 4D comes with layered 3D models of the human body and its organs. Experts are saying that using such tools may help students increase their efficiency.
AR could also be used to improve road safety. Human vision is notoriously unreliable on the road; the driver’s field of view is limited and the rear-view mirrors, while helpful, can be misleading. Cameras can help you get a better understanding of your car and its immediate surroundings, but it is also far from a perfect solution. Some companies propose using AR windshields to eliminate this issue by placing the information gathered from various sensors in the driver’s field of view. That way, dangerous turns will be more visible, accidents will be more preventable, and the driver will be able to view directions without taking his eyes off the road.
AR in arts and entertainment
Artists first experimented with augmented reality all the way back in the 1970s. Now that you no longer need a mainframe to produce 3D images, AR is increasingly used to create and accompany works of art. When you open such an app and point your smartphone at certain physical objects, they are transformed into AR experiences — the static pictures and drawings become animated.
AR exhibitions are taking place all over the world. The attendees of the Cannes Lions had an opportunity to experience the AR creations of Alex Israel, a world-renowned digital artist. His provocative visions of modern California culture came alive thanks to Snapchat’s AR-enabled camera. Apple is also keeping up with the trends — this past August they joined forces with New York’s New Museum to bring such an experience to millions of its customers. This exhibition, aptly called [AR]T, showcased works by world-renowned artists like Nick Cave and John Giorno in urban environments of New York, London, Paris, and other big cities.
However, most of us are familiar with AR as a gimmick, a toy. We encounter it when playing games like Pokémon GO and Ingress. They use it to bring virtual spaces and creatures to life on our smartphone’s screen. We encounter it on social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat. Remember puppy filters? Dancing hot dogs? That’s also AR! Funny enough, these filters have already embedded themselves into the fabric of our pop culture.
The future of AR: A force for good?
Consumer AR headsets are yet to enter the mainstream, so most applications of the technology are relying on our phones to make things work. For something that’s supposed to be immersive, it’s a setback. But the industry is growing, so there’s hope. Experts expect the AR market to top the $90 billion mark within 5 years. However, what will the consequences of this ever-increasing popularity be?
Some argue that, by working with computers humans have, quite literally, extended their cognitive capabilities. We have successfully outsourced our ability to remember and process some information to an external object. We no longer need to memorize everything when we can simply learn to look it up. Perhaps, AR will have a similar positive effect on our cognition.
However, when considering the potential impact of any new technology, we should not forget the human tendency to exploit it. Some fear that, because of its subversive nature, AR could be quite dangerous in the wrong hands. Unlike VR, which totally replaces your reality, AR opts for subtle changes. If these changes are realistic enough, we could lose the ability to tell physical objects apart from CG.
This scenario is explored by one of the episodes of Charlie Brooker’s 'Black Mirror'. The soldiers in 'Men Against Fire' are given neural implants that quite literally dehumanize their opponents by making them look like hideous mutants. The soldiers themselves are oblivious to the deception and don’t know that, in reality, they are simply killing other humans.
Regardless of your views on the ethics of AR, it’s still got a long way to go. Perhaps, we could renew this discussion when wearable AR tech goes mainstream. As for when this will happen? Only time can tell.
Misha Sokolov is co-founder of MNFST