Getting your hands on Augmented Reality: 1 of 3. An Introduction

AR Capable Devices

Augmented Reality (AR) is worth keeping an eye on because there’s every chance that it will touch your personal and professional life. It is forecast to eclipse even its more famous sibling, the sky-rocketing Virtual Reality (VR) by 2018. With the two achieving a combined industry value of US$150 Billion by 2020, of which 80% will be ARii.

Best of all you can try it out with just a tablet or smartphone, and current contenders playing in the AR headset space all do double duty as VR headsets.

Before diving in, below is a refresher in case you’re not familiar with AR, its potential uses, how it’s delivered, and why it’s currently lagging VR. I will also give you a couple of links to wiggle your toes in the virtual waters.

If you are thinking of getting a headset, I will cover strengths and weaknesses of leading headsets in part 2 of this article. If you already own a Google Cardboard headset I will show you how to make it AR capable (without losing the VR features) in part 3. If VR is more your thing you can check out an earlier article with a broader introduction to AR and VR (see referencei at the end of this article).

What is AR and Why is it Useful?

AR superimposes information and computer-generated (CG) sensory elements onto your real environment. The content and technology are similar to VR, but VR replaces your real environment with a complete CG world, not just specific elements. Neither is better, each has unique strengths for different situations. Practical AR applications include:

As a consumer:

  • when you are shopping in store, instantly check reviews and comparison prices (via a pop-up screen when you look at a particular product);
  • see a new sofa in your living room as if it were physically there (switching between different fabrics, and moving it effortlessly to different positions);
  • catch up with friends or family for a game of monopoly, even if the board does not physically exist, or if other players are at home in their lounge rooms (everybody and everything will appear to be physically located in front of you)

As a professional:

  • display an interactive 3D flowchart on the meeting room table to more clearly communicate;
  • with interactive user manuals you can service an unfamiliar system, because information and even instructional videos appear beside components (this is already in play in the aviation and automotive industries);
  • provide engaging material to your customers when they look at your product or print advertisement (this could be a 3D talking animation of your cereal’s mascot, or as practical as step by step recipe instructions)

Tablets, Headsets? How Is AR Actually Delivered?

You can use just a tablet or smartphone without a headset to view content, but there are two main advantages of headsets:

  • They enhance your entire field of vision, not just the small window where you physically hold up a screen. The difference is watching a YouTube video on your phone versus the sense of immersion when the lights go down at the cinema;
  • Your hands are free to work or interact

A third advantage is not yet widely available:

  • You may know that our eyes are set apart to give us two subtly different perspectives which the brain triangulates to measure distance. AR headsets already simulate this with two versions of CG objects, but the real world is (currently) captured with a single headset camera so both eyes see a duplicate of the same image, which does not quite feel real.

Incidentally this effect also applies to our ears and stereo sound. Stimulation of smell, taste and touch are still not in play so we’ll leave them out of the discussion for now.

Why VR is currently more common? – AR is harder to deliver

Developers don’t usually know where in real world you will place their content, so it’s not easy to believably position elements over your vision.

It might seem straightforward to place a virtual object on the palm of your hand, or in the corner of a room. After all your brain can estimate the distance, size, and density of objects from visual cues, but computers? They’re still learning.

To overcome this, AR often uses ‘markers’ or ‘trackers’. These can be any easily recognisable physical images (e.g. the sheet of paper under the power-tool in the banner image of this article). You place them wherever you wish to position the virtual object. If you turn, tilt, or move the marker, the virtual object follows suit so long as the image is visible to your device.

The second challenge is lighting.

In a fully virtual environment the developer knows the position, strength, diffusion and colour of all light sources. Whereas when using AR, you might be outside in bright sunlight or chilling on your sofa with a lava lamp for mood lighting. So the lighting on AR objects will not match real objects. Just think of movies with blue screen special effects where the lighting of foreground objects felt a little off for the same reason.iii

The technology to measure light already exists. It’s just a matter of time and processing power before headsets adjust the lighting effects on virtual objects to match the real world in real time.

Of course, even today neither placement nor lighting is an issue if developers are able to write for a controlled environment, such as a particular art gallery, café, or cinema.

The good stuff – how can you try AR today?

Ok, enough talk. You do not need a headset to download this free application; many smartphones and tablets will work:

If you’re a gamer, then here’s a new take on characters that you may be familiar with:

Check them out and let me know what you think, or feel free to suggest other favourite apps. You can contact me via

References and Useful Links

i. The earlier article I mentioned: Kinky Blindfolds and the Virtual Reality Revival:

ii. Source for the industry valuation:

iii. Here is an example of the lighting problem (Cinema using blue screen, not AR but you get the idea). Before you send hate-mail, yes I know Labyrinth is an awesome film:


  • The image for this article combines original photography, and commercial images sourced from the applications ‘augment’ and ‘pokemon go’, which are referenced in the article. It should not be reused without acknowledgement.
  • Any relevant commercial or personal relationships at the time of publication or update are disclosed within the article to avoid conflict of interest.

Article by Brendan Ridge. Published 12 July 2016. (C) Copyright Brendan Ridge 2016