Augmented Reality: An Explainer

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Published in The Foundation magazine, Qatar Foundation.
Download PDF here.

When Pokémon GO burst on to cell phone screens around the world in the summer of 2016, people were talking about augmented reality (AR) whether they knew the term or not. Since then Snapchat, the pioneer of accessible AR, has expanded its already vast array of face-animating AR filters to include 3D ‘world lenses’ that allow users to place virtual 3D objects into the real world. Unlike Snapchat’s stickers, which are flat, these objects behave as if they exist in the real world. Walk towards it and it gets bigger, back away and it gets smaller.

Not to be outdone, Facebook is investing in advanced AR which allows static 2D images to be turned into interactive 3D ones giving users a whole new way to interact with their environment. With such rapidly-evolving innovation at users’ fingertips, we felt it was time to provide a brief primer for the technology and scope of AR.

What is Augmented Reality?

AR is anything that layers virtual information over the real world. Pokémon GO and Snapchat have been doing this for a while, but with Facebook’s AR plans and Snapchat’s World Lenses, AR is about to become a lot more advanced, and a lot more common.

How does it work?

Admittedly, layering virtual information over the real world in real-time doesn’t sound very impressive. After all, television broadcasters have been doing it for decades, but the difference between AR and regular CGI [computer-generated imagery) is that CGI only displays one perspective.

AR technology counters this through a process dubbed ‘markerless tracking’, which identifies patterns and features to make sense of the world around it, similar to the way the human brain does, allowing it to process and create 3D images.

But how does a phone camera see things that aren’t actually there?

Human vision works by processing light rays that bounce off objects and are then redirected into the eye. Cameras work on a similar principle. But how to get a camera to see something that isn’t there?

AR devices create artificial light within them through LEDs [light-emitting diodes] and then redirect them to create the desired image. An optical device then combines this artificial image with images from the real world, and as a result, you might discover a rainbow in the middle of your bedroom.

What’s the future of AR?

AR is set to expand into almost every field of life, with applications ranging from medicine to sales and marketing, engineering, education, video games, and beyond. Soon an AR headset could even let you sit in a coffee shop with a friend who in reality is miles away, but appears to be sitting on the couch opposite to you.

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