Applications of Augmented Reality

Augmented reality is evolving as computing power increases

Mobile device showing augmented reality
David Malan/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

What would an NFL football game be without the yellow 1st down line painted on the field? Emmy award winning Sportvision from Mountain View, California introduced "1st and Ten" 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. The players seem to be able to walk on top of the line painted on the field. The yellow 1st down line is an example of augmented reality.

What is augmented reality?

Augmented reality is technology that combines virtual reality with the real world. The current world of augmented reality deals with live video imagery which is digitally enhanced with computer generated graphics. For example, a user might wear translucent goggles or view the screen of a camera equipped mobile device where they can see the real world as well as strategically placed computer generated images. Ronald Azuma's definition of augmented reality is widely referenced in the research literature. He defines an augmented reality application as one that (1) combines the real world with the virtual world, (2) is interactive and in real-time and (3) is registered in 3 dimensions.

Augmented reality has existed since the 1930's but recent advances in smartphone technology have fueled the recent hype. For a couple of bucks, an average person can point their iPhone at the night sky and view the layout of the stars and planets in their exact locations with full definitions.

Now there are even more AR apps for the iPhone. The smartphone industry is developing the computing power for many augmented reality applications; it is introducing the world to this concept. Many researchers have pointed to the mobile phone industry as saving their augmented reality research programs by making it more mainstream.


There are essentially 3 different kinds of displays of augmented reality:

  1. The head mounted display (HMD) is worn on the head or attached to a helmet. This display can resemble goggles or glasses. In some instances, there is a screen that covers a single eye. The handheld device is a portable computer or mobile smartphone such as the iPhone.
  2. The spatial display makes use of projected graphical displays onto fixed surfaces.


Applications for augmented reality are broad. The military uses augmented reality to assist men and women making repairs in the field. The gaming industry is moving games outside like the old days…equipped with the wearable head gear of course. And then there is everything in between.


Navigation applications are possibly the most natural fit of augmented reality with our everyday lives. Enhanced GPS systems are using augmented reality to make it easier to get from point A to point B. Wikitude Drive for the Android operating system which is currently in beta brings the GPS into the 21st century. Using the phone's camera in combination with the GPS, the users see the selected route over the live view of what is in front of the car.


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. Total Immersion, a global leader in augmented reality, develops systems designed to enhance the experience of the museum attendee. Their interactive kiosk solution allows guests to interact with the display in 3D. They choose a model card such as a human heart and hold it under the camera. On screen, a perfect 3D representation of the heart appears on the screen allowing the guest to interact as if it's a real heart.

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.


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 pilots view. Data typically displayed to the pilot includes altitude, airspeed and the horizon line in addition to other critical data. The term "heads-up" comes from the fact that the pilot doesn't have to look down at the aircraft's instrumentation to get the data they need.

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.


There have been really interesting advances in the medical application of augmented reality. Medical students use the 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 very 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.

Maintenance and Repair

Using a head-worn display, a mechanic making repairs to engine can see superimposed imagery and information in their actual line of sight. The procedure might be presented in a box in the corner and an image of the tool that they would use 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.


With recent advances in computing power and technology, gaming applications in augmented reality are on the upswing. Head-worn systems are inexpensive and computing power is more portable than ever. Ogmento, an augmented reality game developer recently received $3.5 million of institutional funding to develop gaming applications for the iPhone and Android devices. Ogmento is betting on continued adoption of this niche technology and acceptance by the gaming community.

In Zombie ShootAR from Metaio, the player uses a mobile phone to shoot zombies crawling around anywhere, anytime. The zombies are superimposed on your mobile phone in this 1st person shooter game. Metaio describes this game as an early example of what is possible in augmented reality.
While augmented reality has been around for more than 20 years, it is taking off in gaming applications with the recent release of the iPhone and Android devices that include GPS, powerful processors and digital compasses. These technologies are required in augmented reality.


Go to Lego's augmented reality website. Print out a black and white image and hold it up in front of your webcam. This augmented reality application allows you to interact with certain Lego products on your computer screen in 3D. Lego is even printing tags on their product boxes. You simply login to and hold up the box to your webcam. You see on screen a 3D representation of the Lego product you just purchased.

Advertising and Promotion

The James Cameron movie, Avatar, blurred the lines between reality and animation. The promotion and advertising campaign pushed augmented reality like never before. Avatar toys manufactured by Mattel include a card that can be read by a webcam. The result is an augmented reality robot or character that comes to life on your computer screen. The technology which was developed by Total Immersion also includes interactivity by adding a button to the cards. Pressing the buttons causes the on-screen character to shoot a gun or even recite part of the script.

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 Layer application retrieves data based on where you are and can display this data to you on your mobile screen. Details about popular places, structures and even movies are covered by Layers. Layer is more than just a browser. It's an augmented reality platform that encourages developers to build application or "Layers" that they can sell.

Quiznos, a sub fast-food chain specializing in toasted subs, contracted with Winvolve, Inc. to build a Layer in an attempt to keep their brand cutting edge. The Quiznos "Layer" was launched in June 2010 and includes a store locater, 3D animations, coupons based on the user's location and videos.

What's next in augmented reality?

Augmented reality is seeing bit of resurgence with the adoption of the iPhone and Android mobile platforms. Computing power is being packed in smaller and smaller devices. Privacy will become a concern. For example, pointing your iPhone at someone and automatically pulling up their Facebook page might make some people weary but you can already use virtual reality with an iPhone now.

The yellow 1st down line is a standard in football now but the industry is moving faster than ever to blend virtual and real-world information. Leading researchers will continue pushing the envelope in augmented reality by allowing users to interact more with this technology. Imagine having virtual spaces that other users can enter. One thing is for sure, we are just scratching the surface of this exciting technology.