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Augmented reality

by Beth Divine 30 Mar 2018

Augmented reality is a term coined in 1990 by Thomas Caudell a researcher for Boeing, when the process was used to help workers on the assembly line. Its uses have slowly increased from one or two very specialised processes to a wide range encompassing everything from retail to medical to entertainment. (More about these uses follow in a separate blog post!).

Augmented reality is the integration of digital information with the user’s environment in real time. Augmented reality differs from virtual reality in a number of ways, but the main one is because virtual reality creates a totally artificial environment, while augmented reality uses the existing environment and overlays new information on top of it.

Virtual reality immerses the user into a completely artificial ‘world’, away from real life surroundings. Users can interact with the artificial world via controllers, which can be in the form of gloves or as familiar games console-style controllers. Watching someone using virtual reality can be amusing or bemusing, depending on whether you know what they are up to, as they seem to be touching or holding things that aren’t there, and they respond to stimuli that watchers, or those in the ‘real’ world, cannot see, hear or touch.

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Virtual reality headsets cover the eyes of the user, blocking out interference from the real world.

By contrast, augmented reality overlays an artificial interface over the real world, using technology to merge real life objects with those entirely created by computer. For example, a cartoon figure in a small race car (computer created) can race across a living room, using people’s legs as bridges and jumping from coffee table to carpet to pile of books.

Augmented reality requires something to be placed between the viewers’ eyes and the real world being used as a background, but unlike virtual reality, these have to allow for simultaneous viewing of the real world and the artificial world, so that they can appear to interact seamlessly. For this purpose, augmented reality uses the camera on devices like tablets and smartphones, or is used in conjunction with spectacles which have the augmented reality software within them, providing a transparent screen on which the computer-generated features can be seen over the real-world background.

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Augmented reality can seem almost more magical and impossible than virtual reality because it does appear to fuse an imaginary world with the real one in an authentic and delightful manner, while virtual reality relies on shutting out the real world to allow the entirely computer-generated world to ‘take over’ the consciousness of the user.

So there we have a definition of augmented reality, as well as the difference between virtual reality and augmented reality: sisters in technology, but with very different uses in a number of fields.