Augmented reality may not be as exciting as a virtual reality rollercoaster ride, however, it may prove to be a very useful tool in our everyday lives. It holds this potential because it brings elements of the virtual world, into the real world, enhancing the things we see, hear, and feel. Among the other reality technologies, augmented reality lies in the middle of the mixed reality spectrum, being between the real and virtual world.
An enhanced version of reality where live direct or indirect views of physical real-world environments are augmented with superimposed computer-generated images over a user's view of the real-world, thus enhancing one’s current perception of reality.
The origin of the word augmented is augment, which means to add something. In the case of augmented reality (also called AR), graphics, sounds, and touch feedback are added into our natural world. Unlike virtual reality, which requires you to inhabit an entirely virtual environment, augmented reality uses your existing natural environment and simply overlays virtual information on top of it. As both virtual and real worlds harmoniously coexist, users of augmented reality experience a new and improved world where virtual information is used as a tool to provide assistance in everyday activities.
Applications of augmented reality can be as simple as a text-notification or as complicated as an instruction on how to perform a life-threatening surgical procedure. They can highlight certain features, enhance understandings, and provide accessible and timely data. Cell phones apps and business applications are a few of the many applications driving augmented reality application development. The key point is that the information provided is highly topical and relevant to what you want you are doing.
Several categories of augmented reality technology exist, each with varying differences in their objectives and applicational use cases. Below, we explore the various types of technologies that make up augmented reality:
In order to understand how augmented reality technology works, one must first understand its objective: to bring computer generated objects into the real world, which only the user can see.
In most augmented reality applications, a user will see both synthetic and natural light. This is done by overlaying projected images on top of a pair of see-through goggles or glasses, which allow the images and interactive virtual objects to layer on top of the user's view of the real world. Augmented Reality devices are often self-contained, meaning that unlike the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive VR headsets, they are completely untethered and do not need a cable or desktop computer to function.
Augmented realities can be displayed on a wide variety of displays, from screens and monitors, to handheld devices or glasses. Google Glass and other head-up displays (HUD) put augmented reality directly onto your face, usually in the form of glasses. Handheld devices employ small displays that fit in users hands, including smartphones and tablets. As reality technologies continue to advance, augmented reality devices will gradually require less hardware and start being applied to things like contact lenses and virtual retinal displays.
Sensors are usually on the outside of the augmented reality device, and gather a user's real world interactions and communicate them to be processed and interpreted. Cameras are also located on the outside of the device, and visually scan to collect data about the surrounding area. The devices take this information, which often determines where surrounding physical objects are located, and then formulates a digital model to determine appropriate output. In the case of Microsoft Hololens, specific cameras perform specific duties, such as depth sensing. Depth sensing cameras work in tandem with two "environment understanding cameras" on each side of the device. Another common type of camera is a standard several megapixel camera (similar to the ones used in smartphones) to record pictures, videos, and sometimes information to assist with augmentation.
While “Projection Based Augmented Reality” is a category in-itself, we are specifically referring to a miniature projector often found in a forward and outward-facing position on wearable augmented reality headsets. The projector can essentially turn any surface into an interactive environment. As mentioned above, the information taken in by the cameras used to examine the surrounding world, is processed and then projected onto a surface in front of the user; which could be a wrist, a wall, or even another person. The use of projection in augmented reality devices means that screen real estate will eventually become a lesser important component. In the future, you may not need an iPad to play an online game of chess because you will be able to play it on the tabletop in front of you.
Augmented reality devices are basically mini-supercomputers packed into tiny wearable devices. These devices require significant computer processing power and utilize many of the same components that our smartphones do. These components include a CPU, a GPU, flash memory, RAM, Bluetooth/Wifi microchip, global positioning system (GPS) microchip, and more. Advanced augmented reality devices, such as the Microsoft Hololens utilize an accelerometer (to measure the speed in which your head is moving), a gyroscope (to measure the tilt and orientation of your head), and a magnetometer (to function as a compass and figure out which direction your head is pointing) to provide for truly immersive experience.
Mirrors are used in augmented reality devices to assist with the way your eye views the virtual image. Some augmented reality devices may have “an array of many small curved mirrors” (as with the Magic Leap augmented reality device) and others may have a simple double-sided mirror with one surface reflecting incoming light to a side-mounted camera and the other surface reflecting light from a side-mounted display to the user's eye. In the Microsoft Hololens, the use of “mirrors” involves see-through holographic lenses (Microsoft refers to them as waveguides) that use an optical projection system to beam holograms into your eyes. A so-called light engine, emits the light towards two separate lenses (one for each eye), which consists of three layers of glass of three different primary colors (blue, green, red). The light hits those layers and then enters the eye at specific angles, intensities and colors, producing a final holistic image on the eye's retina. Regardless of method, all of these reflection paths have the same objective, which is to assist with image alignment to the user's eye.
Augmented reality devices are often controlled either by touch a pad or voice commands. The touch pads are often somewhere on the device that is easily reachable. They work by sensing the pressure changes that occur when a user taps or swipes a specific spot. Voice commands work very similar to the way they do on our smartphones. A tiny microphone on the device will pick up your voice and then a microprocessor will interpret the commands. Voice commands, such as those on the Google Glass augmented reality device, are preprogrammed from a list of commands that you can use. On the Google Glass, nearly all of them start with "OK, Glass," which alerts your glasses that a command is soon to follow. For example, "OK, Glass, take a picture" will send a command to the microprocessor to snap a photo of whatever you're looking at.
A strong example of augmented reality in use is in the field of healthcare. From a routine checkup, to a complex surgical procedure, augmented reality can provide immense benefits and efficiencies to both patient and healthcare professional.