Applications of Augmented Reality

AR is evolving as computing power increases

Mobile device showing augmented reality

David Malan/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images 

Although augmented reality has been around for years, it wasn't until Android and iOS smartphones came equipped with GPS, camera and AR capability that augmented reality came into its own with the public. Augmented reality is technology that combines virtual reality with the real world in the form of live video imagery that is digitally enhanced with computer-generated graphics. AR can be experienced through headsets that people wear and through displays on mobile devices.

Handheld AR Equipment

What We Like

  • Convenient to use.

  • Inexpensive compared to AR hardware.

  • Growing collection of available apps.

What We Don't Like

  • Lower quality than using AR hardware.

  • Not all smartphones support AR.

  • Doesn't provide a full AR experience.

The long list of AR software development kits for Android smartphones and Apple's ARKit for its mobile devices give developers the tools they need to add AR elements to their apps.

Want to view how a retailer's virtual furniture looks in your room before you buy? There'll soon be an AR app for that. Want to clean off your dining room table and populate it with your favorite action-adventure game locales and characters? You can.

The number of AR apps for the iPhone and Android devices has expanded dramatically, and they aren't limited to games. Retailers are showing tremendous interest in AR possibilities.

AR Headsets

What We Like

  • Highest quality AR available.

  • Well integrated audio.

  • Truly immersive AR experience.

What We Don't Like

  • Very expensive.

  • Bulky to use.

  • Requires specialized software.

You may have heard of Microsoft's HoloLens by now or Facebook's Oculus VR headset. These high-end headsets were eagerly awaited by all, but only a lucky few could afford them. It wasn't long before headsets were offered at a consumer price—the Meta 2 head-mounted display headset is a third the price of the HoloLens. Like most AR headsets, it operates while tethered to a PC—but it won't be long before untethered headsets are available. Budget-priced headsets are available for use with smartphones and tablets. The future may see smart glasses be all the rage or smart contact lens.

AR Applications

Early PC, smartphone and tablet applications for augmented reality focused on games, but the uses of AR are much broader. The military uses augmented reality to assist men and women as they make repairs in the field. Medical personnel use AR to prepare for surgeries. The possible commercial and educational applications are unlimited.

Military AR Uses

What We Like

  • Provides battlefield advantage.

  • Reduces distraction.

  • Provides information at a glance.

What We Don't Like

  • Ambient lighting can reduce quality.

  • Increases cost of military equipment.

  • Consumes additional power.

The Heads-Up Display (HUD) is the typical example of augmented reality when it comes to military applications of the technology. A transparent display is positioned directly in the fighter pilot's view. Data typically displayed to the pilot includes altitude, airspeed and the horizon line in addition to other critical data. The term "heads-up" name applies because the pilot doesn't have to look down at the aircraft's instrumentation to get the data he needs.

The Head-Mounted Display (HMD) is used by ground troops. Critical data such as enemy location can be presented to the soldier within their line of sight. This technology is also used for simulations for training purposes.

Medical AR Uses

What We Like

  • Puts medical information in front of surgeon.

  • Reduces the risk of mistakes.

  • Improves surgical accuracy.

What We Don't Like

  • Requires expensive software.

  • Software errors have significant negative impact.

  • Requires specialized hardware.

Medical students use AR technology to practice surgery in a controlled environment. Visualizations aid in explaining complex medical conditions to patients. Augmented reality can reduce the risk of an operation by giving the surgeon improved sensory perception. This technology can be combined with MRI or X-ray systems and bring everything into a single view for the surgeon.

Neurosurgery is at the forefront when it comes to surgical applications of augmented reality. The ability to image the brain in 3D on top of the patient's actual anatomy is powerful for the surgeon. Since the brain is somewhat fixed compared to other parts of the body, the registration of exact coordinates can be achieved. Concern still exists surrounding the movement of tissue during surgery. This can affect the exact positioning required for augmented reality to work.

AR Apps for Navigation

What We Like

  • Creates an easy driving experience.

  • Lots of high quality AR apps available.

  • Keeps driving information at a glance.

What We Don't Like

  • Can consume a lot of mobile data.

  • May lead to distracted driving.

  • The best AR navigation apps aren't free.

Navigation applications are possibly the most natural fit of augmented reality with our everyday lives. Enhanced GPS systems use augmented reality to make it easier to get from point A to point B. Using the smartphone's camera in combination with the GPS, users see the selected route over the live view of what is in front of the car. 

Sightseeing in Augmented Reality

What We Like

  • Easy access to libraries of information.

  • Enhances your travel experience.

  • Learn much more about locations.

What We Don't Like

  • Rapidly drains phone battery.

  • Requires mobile data.

  • Can lead to distracted walking.

There are a number of applications for augmented reality in the sightseeing and tourism industries. The ability to augment a live view of displays in a museum with facts and figures is a natural use of the technology. 

Out in the real world, sightseeing has been enhanced using augmented reality. Using a smartphone equipped with a camera, tourists can walk through historic sites and see facts and figures presented as an overlay on their live screen. These applications use GPS and image recognition technology to look up data from an online database. In addition to information about a historic site, applications exist that look back in history and show how the location looked 10, 50 or even 100 years ago.

Maintenance and Repair

What We Like

  • Easy access to libraries of information.

  • No need to break away to do research.

  • Instructions available at a glance.

What We Don't Like

  • Requires expensive hardware.

  • May get in the way of repair work.

  • Equipment can get dirty and ruined.

Using a head-worn display, a mechanic making repairs to an engine can see superimposed imagery and information in his actual line of sight. The procedure might be presented in a box in the corner, and an image of the necessary tool can illustrate the exact motion the mechanic needs to perform. The augmented reality system can label all the important parts. Complex procedural repairs can be broken down into a series of simple steps. Simulations can be used to train technicians, which can significantly reduce training expenses.

AR Gaming Takes Off

What We Like

  • Immersive gaming experience.

  • Experience the cutting edge of gaming.

  • Some games require expensive hardware.

What We Don't Like

  • Lots of low quality games on the market.

  • High quality AR games can be expensive.

  • Controls can be difficult.

With recent advances in computing power and technology, gaming applications in augmented reality are on the upswing. Head-worn systems are affordable now and computing power is more portable than ever. Before you can say "Pokemon Go," you can jump into an AR game that works with your mobile device, superimposing mythical creatures over your everyday landscape.

Popular Android and iOS AR apps include Ingress, SpecTrek, Temple Treasure Hunt, Ghost Snap AR, Zombies, Run! and AR Invaders.

Advertising and Promotion

What We Like

  • Removes the need for special hardware.

  • Quickly find the best businesses near you.

  • Powerful marketing tool.

What We Don't Like

  • Consumes mobile battery power.

  • Requires mobile data.

  • May cause distracted driving or walking.

The Layar Reality Browser is an application for iPhone and Android designed to show the world around you by displaying real time digital information in conjunction with the real world. It uses the camera on your mobile device to augment your reality. Using the GPS location feature in your mobile device, the Layar application retrieves data based on where you are and displays this data to you on your mobile screen. Details about popular places, structures and movies are covered by Layar. Street views show the names of the restaurants and businesses superimposed over their storefronts.

Early Uses of AR

What would an NFL football game be without the yellow first down line painted on the field? Emmy award-winning Sportvision introduced this augmented reality feature to football in 1998, and the game has never been the same. Fans watching from home know when a team gets a first down before fans in the stadium, and players seem to walk on top of the line painted on the field. The yellow first down line is an example of augmented reality.