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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.