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Augmented Reality is older than you think: charting the tech’s 70-year-history

Tarun Mittal
30th Jan 2018
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Augmented Reality (AR) is touted as one of the most promising technologies of today. Defined in the simplest terms as a technology that overlays computer-generated imagery on an existing environment, AR has witnessed a recent surge in popularity chiefly due to the prevalence of camera-carrying smartphones. One might then be forgiven for thinking that AR is a relatively recent advancement. However, the technology was actually first developed nearly 70 years ago, at a time when computers had just been endowed with integrated circuits. While niche uses of AR have cropped up over the years, the technology available today has allowed AR to be widely used among the masses.

Before we get into the history and evolution of AR, let’s take a moment to understand what it exactly is and how it differs from Virtual Reality. So for the uninitiated, AR is a technology that alters one’s sensory perception of a real-world environment by enhancing or augmenting elements present in it. The overlaid information can target one or more sensory cues – including visual, auditory, haptic, and olfactory senses – to be perceived as an immersive aspect of the environment. While Virtual Reality (VR) wholly replaces the real environment with a simulated one, AR projects digital information on top of the real world by either adding to or subtracting from existing elements.

Image: Shutterstock

From fiction to reality

Unlike a lot of well-known inventions and discoveries that have shaped the world of today, it is difficult to attribute the origins of AR to a single person or group of individuals. The development of the technology has its roots in science fiction before multiple brilliant minds refined the concept over many years into its present form. Hence, there is no single father/mother of AR, but rather, we have a whole family who each made noteworthy contributions to its evolution.

Way back in 1901, author Frank Baum (of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz fame) mentions AR glasses (he called it a Character Marker) in a short story titled The Master Key. It was nearly 60 years later that this fiction first began its transformation into reality thanks to the work of Morton Heilig. Between 1957 and 1962, Heilig invented and released the Sensorama, an arcade cabinet. Sensorama would broadcast a film to its users while simultaneously stimulating their senses of smell, touch, and hearing. A few years later, in 1968, an electrical engineer named Ivan Sutherland built a head-mounted display that depicted rudimentary CGI rather than film. These inventions were, however, a blend of VR and AR.

The creation of the first pure AR experience took a few more years. In the mid-1970s, American computer artist Myron Krueger established an AR laboratory called Videoplace. The laboratory placed users in an interactive environment using video cameras, projectors, and specialised hardware. By 1978, the first wearable AR device called the EyeTap was invented by Steve Mann. EyeTap used a camera and a heads-up display to provide the user with a real-time AR experience. While this was a key milestone for AR, it wasn’t the first AR application to gain mass adoption. That honour goes to Dan Reitan who, in 1982, used radar and space-based cameras to map visual graphics during television weather broadcasts – an application that remains in wide use to this day.

While the idea and potential of AR were being explored for decades, the term ‘augmented reality’ itself was coined only in 1990 by Tom Caudell, a researcher for Boeing. From then on, advancements in AR rapidly quickened in pace. In 1992, Louis Rosenberg developed one of the first functioning AR systems for the US Air Force to enhance human performance. By the end of the 20th century, AR was being used in a variety of sectors, including identifying space debris, providing soldiers with a heads-up display, and highlighting elements for game footage during sports broadcasts.

Soon the internet entered the fray and new potential applications of AR could be realised. But people still needed expensive special-purpose hardware to enjoy the benefits of AR. A missing key component was preventing AR from gaining mass adoption. That component? Smartphones.

The smartphone revolution

The smartphone is undoubtedly one of the most impactful technological advancements in human history. These internet-enabled pocket computers have allowed other technologies to reach hitherto unimaginable heights and AR is one of them. The mass availability of a touchscreen and a camera have exponentially bolstered advancements in AR software. With the hardware side of the issue taken care of, developers have been creating a diverse range of AR applications in the last few years.

In the present day scenario, businesses are employing AR to enhance manufacturing and research processes or to offer new customer experiences. For example, Boeing and DHL conducted experiments wherein employees are provided with AR instructions in a bid to improve their accuracy and performance. Furniture retailer Ikea has rolled out an AR app that allows users to place and view virtual Ikea products in their homes before they purchase them.

On the consumer front, games have perhaps done the most to further AR adoption. Microsoft’s Kinect, for example, allows Xbox users to control an on-screen persona using body gestures. Meanwhile, games like Zombies, Run! and Niantic’s Ingress and Pokemon Go have pioneered location-based games that turn the real world into a massively multiplayer online game. 

But the most widely used application of AR is surprisingly also perhaps the most unrecognised – social media. The millions of Snapchat and Instagram users who enhance their endless stream of ‘stories’ with the apps’ many filters and stickers are making use of AR without even realising it.

What lies ahead

As smartphone processors become more powerful and their cameras better, AR applications continue to broaden in scope. This trend is further compounded by the advent of smart wearables. Today, the world’s biggest tech companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook are heavily invested in expanding the application and adoption of AR.

Apple recently announced an update to ARKit – a platform that allows developers to create AR apps for the iOS ecosystem – that would increase AR functionality in iPhones and iPads. Google, who had a rocky entry into AR with the Google Glass, is experimenting with bringing AR to the web platform. Their goal is to bring AR content to any user with an AR-enabled device and browser. Microsoft too has entered the market by building upon the Kinect and launching its mixed-reality smartglasses called HoloLens.

But this is just the start. Analysts predict that the AR/VR market, which was worth $11.4 billion last year, will grow to $215 billion by 2021. AR alone is projected to accrue around 200 million users by the end of 2018. Due to more diverse applications that do not always require dedicated hardware, AR is also expected to dwarf VR in market size in the coming years. With so much research and development going into the field of AR, the coming years promise to be the most exciting era for what is one of the most revolutionary technologies today.

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