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Augmented reality supplements, rather than supplants, the real world, and this is the crucial difference between “AR” and “VR”. Virtual reality is a replacement realm, whereas Augmented Reality is where direct, indirect or live views of the physical world are augmented with digital imagery. This digital imagery is overlaid onto the user’s view of the physical world via a digital device with a camera providing the live view, and the digital screen offering a plane or platform for the overlaid image to appear on.
The chances are you have experienced some forms of basic AR even if you haven’t realised it at the time. Examples of AR include Heads-up-Displays, Snapchat filters and PokemonGo – often used to “augment” the world with a visual form of entertainment or information, AR has many more possibilities for development. Although they sound similar, their technologies develop and bleed into one another. Through the incorporation of AR over a physical environment, different spatial experiences are therefore facilitated that open up different possibilities for the information we gather and the way we interact with our different environments.
The process of AR
Initialising an AR experience requires a trigger; such as an image otherwise known as a ‘marker’. These markers may either consist of a singular 2D image, multiple images or an object. However, marker images must be distinct and unique in that there is a high degree of contrast in colour, and makes use of differing shapes and shadows to enable the AR application to distinguish this trigger from its environment. The same principles apply to objects, in that the more unique the form is, with a strong contrast of colour and shapes used on the surface of the object, the more likely it is that the trigger will be recognised. These markers are stored in a database, which is accessed when the AR application is initialised. This image is cross referenced when a potential image is identified by the application in the physical world and if successfully matched launches the AR experience. The realms of marker-based AR also extend to external environments, in that AR developers are able to use landscapes and buildings as triggers based on their distinctive form. However, it is worth noting that lighting and weather conditions will impact how successful the marker image is able to be identified and matched by the AR application due to the changes to its appearance when compared to the original trigger image located on the database.
Development in AR
Recent advancements in AR development have provided some potential solutions to these atmospheric and environmental challenges together with removing the requirement to use a marker image to launch an AR experience. The emergence of SLAM (Simultaneous, Localisation And Mapping) technology which allows AR applications to chart and map physical environments via features points by enabling the user’s device to locate itself in that physical setting and then initiate the overlaying and placement of digital objects in those spaces. This instant tracking of the physical world supports both scene and 3D object recognition, to enable a broad range of creative possibilities of digital object placement and interaction in AR experiences. Prior to the emergence of SLAM, if developers wanted to create a ‘markerless’ experience then they would have to rely on geolocating capabilities through the use of GPS coordinates to chart the positioning of scenes, however, whilst this was relatively successful in external environments, the use of GPS at times suffered from limitations with regards to accuracy, and it was not possible to create AR experiences with great success within internal settings using this technology.
There are a variety of different examples of AR that can be simply accessed from a smartphone or digital device.
In entertainment, we can see fantasy books such as “Between Worlds” that have illustrations that become the “trigger” image. By downloading the app, users can point their mobile phone at the trigger image and their world is augmented via their camera screen to host a 3D location, animal, or environment from the story. These visuals are interactive – tapping the image on the smartphone screen will elicit a response – perhaps a roar from a beast, or interactive displays with more information. This form of AR therefore becomes a form of transmedia storytelling – where a story is told across different mediums, and the more of those you interact with the more information you gain about that story, or world.
Other uses might be more educational, such as the Open University, BBC and Zappar collaboration to create AR interactive models of the human brain, heart, and liver. By downloading the Zappar trigger images and using these in class, students can see a 3D image of these organs, rotate them, click on them, view them as both “healthy” and “unhealthy” and gain a perspective on these internal organs that many would be unlikely to otherwise have.
Products and Services
When it comes to products and services, however, the use of augmented reality is diverse. The overlay and interaction with the physical environments enables some unique ways for certain products to be trialled. For example, the Dulux paint app uses augmented reality to map your walls through your phone camera and on your phone screen you can change the colours of your walls to try out different colours on your wall, and, ultimately, help you decide what paint to buy.
IKEA similarly uses AR to allow you to view products in your own home, helping you visualise that product in a virtual “try before you buy”. Other examples include using AR to allow buys to “try on” jewellery before buying, using their smartphone to look at their hand, for example, and see the ring you are considering buying and what it would look like on you.
These kinds of ideas can demonstrate how you can use AR to improve your business. You might want to think about how AR could add a new lens to your story, perhaps providing more information, or allowing interaction with different elements. Perhaps there is an educational need that AR can fill – other examples might be using the camera lens to “look” at different things, and more information appear about those things, whatever they may be. Or you might have a unique product that you want users to be able to visualise more clearly. What information would you like your users to have? What interaction would you like them to be able to perform? What product or service would you like them to have the chance to try out?
Covid-19 has created unique possibilities for the future of AR – as we move away from high-street shopping this is only being exacerbated by national lockdowns and social distancing concerns. In this changing landscape, an AR experience may allow different ways for consumers to engage with products and services.
The benefits of AR are mainly to do with accessibility – if the user has a smartphone then no other hardware is required. Similarly, a number of different apps exist for the creation and development of AR that do not require coding knowledge (examples include Augmania, Zap works, Torch, and Adobe Aero).
Downfall of AR
Yet, one of the main drawbacks of AR is that there is no centralised app that “reads” all trigger images or locations. In order to engage with an AR creation, the user will need to have the appropriate app downloaded that correlates with the software or platform that was used to create it. This is unlike, for example, QR codes, which can all be read with one QR code reader or smart camera. In order to try and overcome this drawback, the next development in AR is Web AR, that uses the mobile phone browser as the platform to host the AR product. This removal of the barrier that exists with the need to search for, download and install applications on to mobile devices, whether they be tablets, or mobile phones saves valuable storage space, but also offers a level of convenience to the user. The evolution of AR as the technology becomes more sophisticated with advancements in tracking capabilities and the removal of access barriers makes this area of immersive media an exciting frontier of creativity which has only just started to be explored.