Augmented reality apps and tools are becoming more and more commonplace as technology continues to improve. Despite many Americans playing the games or seeing augmented reality glasses, more than half are still asking, “What is augmented reality?”

Yet without even realizing, a great number of people already use it in their lives. Many retail stores and games make use of augmented reality apps on smartphones, and new hardware tools like augmented reality glasses continue to be developed. Companies like Google have recently made great strides that will make the technology even more useful soon.

What Is Augmented Reality?

According to a survey conducted last year by Skrite, nearly 70 percent of Americans do not know what “augmented reality” really means. In fact, less than one in three know what it is! Interestingly, in the same survey, nearly half of Americans indicated they use an app or tool that makes use of augmented reality, or AR. That means the problem is one of education, not familiarity. Hundreds of millions of people have devices that are AR-capable, even if they are not yet aware.

Often, the term “augmented reality” is confused for its cousin, “virtual reality.” Virtual reality games and apps completely immerse the user. By contrast, augmented reality apps add on to the real world. Snapchat filters are a common example of AR, as are other similar services, such as Facebook’s recently launched Camera Effects. Pokémon Go, one of the most popular mobile games of all time, helped to establish augmented reality as a game genre. Any service, tool, game or app that interacts with the real world—while adding information—is a form of AR. That’s how so many people have had contact with it without learning the term, or what it means. Technically, even the yellow first down line on the field when watching NFL games is a form of augmented reality. Heads-up displays (HUD) used by pilots, which have been in use for decades, are another great example.

Augmented reality in the retail industry

Recently, there has been an explosion of apps by retailers making use of AR to allow users to try on clothes or shoes or look at various haircuts. There are apps to see how furniture would look in your house. Lowe’s has stepped into the augmented reality realm on more than one occasion. One allows you to take measurements in your phone. The other takes your shopping list and guides you on the most efficient path through the store.

augmented reality: app allows users to see furniture in home before buying

Image CC by SA 4.0, by ChristinaC, via Wikimedia

Augmented reality in marketing

AR is not just useful for services; it’s also of use for short-term marketing campaigns. Cheetos, for example, has an app called “Cheetos Vision” that analyzes images and turns them into, well, Cheetos. Some stores aren’t stopping at simply allowing you to picture yourself in their products, either. American Apparel allows customers to use an app to scan in-store signs. When they do so, reviews and other information are provided in the app. That kind of immersive experience can only come from the blend of technology and “real life” that comes with augmented reality. They’re not the only ones experimenting with opt-in marketing detail, either. That’s a step up on traditional marketing, which forces a balance between being eye-catching and straightforward and providing information about the product itself.

It’s not clear yet which AR apps and marketing tools are the most effective in a retail environment. Many brands are still experimenting with different marketing and user experience tactics. The broad range of strategies being tried is a big clue as to how valuable the retail industry sees the technology, though—and for a good reason. A 2016 study showed that 61 percent of shoppers would prefer to shop at a store that offered an augmented experience. Plus, 40 percent of shoppers would be willing to pay more money for a product if they were first able to experience it through AR. As time goes on, retailers are only going to improve the utility of augmented services.

Augmented reality games

One place that augmented reality is establishing itself very well is the gaming industry. While Pokémon Go was far from the first augmented reality game, it was revolutionary in both ambition and scale. Now, in 2018, most websites that have articles about mobile gaming have at least one “best AR mobile games” article. There are now dozens of offerings on hand for every major mobile operating system. The result? Tons of subgenres, and a game for practically everyone. There’s horror, detective mysteries, RPGs, MOBAs, puzzle games, sports games, fun with physics—the options are nearly endless.

There’s a lot of games which, like Pokémon Go, get you up and about, moving through the real world in order to accomplish in-game objectives.

augmented reality: pokemon go

Image screenshot, by Niantic and Pokémon, via Facebook

Then, there are games like The Machines, which modifies the space around you. It’s a multiplayer battle arena game, which focuses on two characters controlled by each player. When viewed through your phone, the action transforms a tabletop surface into a live-action game. When it comes to puzzle games, the advent of AR opened up a whole new avenue of development. Having AR devices allows for the creation of new variations on 3D puzzles. In essence, users have to get up and move around, trying different things from different angles in order to come to a solution.

Augmented reality glasses and hardware

It’s fair to say that augmented reality games and services are less hardware-intensive than virtual reality. After all, you don’t need motion sensors and something strapped to your head in order to use them. However, that’s not to say that augmented reality doesn’t have special hardware.

One of the earliest and most well-known examples of hardware designed around AR is the Google Glass, an early set of “smart glasses.” Despite not seeing as much commercial success as Google and supporters hoped, the Glass can undoubtedly be recognized as a successful pioneer. Right now, companies are racing each other to create the first commercially viable successor. Augmented reality glasses are the future, at least according to many big tech companies. Their spending and development show it, too. Toshiba, Snapchat, Google, Intel, Bose and others are all trying to spark what would end up being a revolution in personal devices.

Whether it’s taking on many of the roles our smartphones currently hold or giving you unnaturally amazing vision, the potential held by this type of AR device is enormous. The main obstacle that stops augmented reality glasses from becoming popular at this point isn’t a technological barrier, but a style one. Companies have yet to design a device that the consumers like the look of enough to wear. When it comes to utility over style, they’re a fantastic invention. In healthcare and other industries, smart glasses have proven extremely useful.

The Future of Augmented Reality

Yet the most ambitious and far-reaching of augmented reality technologies are not about gaming or retail.  Last year, Google launched Lens, a visual analysis app. Using powerful machine learning AI, Google has now increased the abilities of Lens to an astonishing degree. Lens allows a user to do a number of interesting things. Users can point their phone at the label on a WiFi router to automatically connect to it. Pointing your camera at a picture of a musician will bring up music videos by that musician. It can recognize different animals and plants, as well as clothes, buildings, movies, books and dozens of other objects. Confused about the breed of a dog? Just point Lens at it! Here’s a video explaining the new features via The Verge:

Utility apps, such as Google Maps, are vastly more useful with AR elements. Google is also combining Lens with Maps. That will allow users to see directions right in front of them, making navigating in the modern world easier than ever.

On top of that, Google and several other companies are releasing toolkits to encourage developers to make full use of the potential of augmented reality. It’s a fair bet that this technology will further revolutionize our world, much the way the advents of cell phones, social media, and other new technologies have. We’ve only seen the beginning of what AR can do.


Featured image: Image CC by 2.0, by Antonio Zugaldia, via Flickr