Most of us are never more than a few feet from a screen: the smartphone in our pockets, the computer at our desks, the smart TV at home. Even our cars and watches display content and information. Could you imagine a world without them?
Augmented reality (AR) may one day bring our screen count down to zero.
AR refers to the addition of digital input to our actual experience of the world; in the early 2000s it was a gimmick; today, it’s a new frontier of technological expansion, bringing fantasies to life but also tagging the world with information and ideas. AR unleashes childhood dreams by providing an entrance to J.K. Rowling’s magical world in “Wizards Unite”, lets millions worldwide capture fantastic beings in “Pokemon Go,” , and visualizes chemical structures in “Happy Atoms.”
Still, consumer VR is only just gaining traction, and most AR headsets are still in their infancy. Given Moore’s Law, the true capabilities of AR will likely emerge quickly in the coming years. With AR software becoming ever more available and simple, the possibilities are as varied as the number of hobby developers and major studios.
Hardware and Software
At present, the majority of AR content is for the mobile arena, as it has a massive existing user base and marketplace via smartphones.
Among the dedicated devices in development, Magic Leap’s Lightwear One stands as the poster child, with over $2.3 Billion raised in venture capital. After five years of development, the company has stated that it will release the headset before the end of 2018. To prime the content pipes, Magic Leap has partnered with a variety of companies, such as special effects houses Framestore and New Zealand’s Weta Workshops.
The Microsoft Hololens was released in 2016, but with a $3,000 price tag for a developers’ model and a $5,000 version for businesses and larger companies, it hasn’t spread far.
The more affordable Google Glass still exists, but it’s migrated from consumer focus to industry, offering a heads-up-display for factory workers and other specialised labourers.
With mobile AR still the dominant platform, one can’t help but talk about the big three content providers: Niantic, Alphabet and Apple. All three have worked towards democratising AR software development, with Alphabet releasing their ARCore for Android, Apple following up with ARKit, and Niantic opening up the floodgates by making public the technology they used to create Pokemon Go!.
Niantic has also been developing its own capabilities with their recent purchases of Seismic Games, Evertoon, Escher Reality and Matrix Mill. Niantic’s Occlusion is one of the most advanced showcases for digital/real world interaction.
“Under the hood” on the gaming front, Unity in combination with Vuforia is being used to develop both AR and VR games on mobile platforms, as well as for dedicated AR headsets.
AR at Play
For children (of all ages), Hasbro released an Ironman headset, which uses the player’s smartphone and AR markers placed around the house to create an Avengers experience.
The potential for AR-integrated toys is endless. Dubit recently created an app for K’NEX that enables a child to create a virtual K’NEX roller coaster and ride it VR, using a cardboard headset. With AR, the track could be projected on any surface or even shown in combination with K’NEX’s physical coaster kits, allowing for new layers of digital/physical interactivity.
“Marker-based” AR can bring football trading cards (like Match Attax) to life, via a smartphone.
AR in Education
A 2014 meta analysis concluded that AR had thus far been applied most in higher education around the sciences, humanities and art. The study suggested, though, that there was high potential for childhood learning and Vocational Educational Training. A similar study published in 2017 agreed, proposing that AR’s greatest potential for learning gains lay in building motivation, interaction and collaboration.
Even AR apps not designed to teach have educational benefit. A 2017 study of 12-15 year olds found that those who played Pokemon Go displayed higher levels of selective attention, concentration, and sociability compared to non-playing counterparts.
Challenges and Conclusions
As exciting as it may be to daydream the future of AR, there are still hurdles to its future ubiquity, such as neck strain from the weight of the headset over prolonged or repetitive use.
Interacting with the augmented world through hand gestures and voice commands can still be very clunky, at least with current headsets like the Microsoft Hololens. For now, use of hand controllers can make up for this deficit. In the future, haptic feedback gloves are likely to help simulate physically touching the virtual.
Cost is another factor, as is the case with most emerging technologies. It remains to be seen what will drive the consumer demand that lowers prices - “killer apps”? a technology breakthrough? hardware/software partnerships? Will apps for kids drive uptake - perhaps the opportunity to “play with” your favourite characters, or with real friends from far away, in your living room?
As soon as it becomes light and cheap enough, AR will undoubtedly integrate into countless facets of our lives. As noted at the start, it may reduce our “screen” count to zero, as we work, play, watch, create, communicate, learn and explore through an AR headset.
Whether it’s five years from now or sooner, AR is coming, ready or not.
This is a guest post from Summer Research Intern, Milan van Heerden - undergraduate at The University of Lincoln. For summer placements and graduate schemes, please contact Steph (firstname.lastname@example.org).