Virtual reality promises to immerse you in a simulated reality. It takes you to a space and tries to make you believe you’re actually there. Augmented reality is almost exactly the opposite. It wants to keep you in your world, but it also wants to act as a layer between you and your world.
In short, it’s technology that augments your world by layering graphs and images and video on top of it. The first AR device, born in the 1960s and called the Sword of Damocles (seriously), set this idea down in stone. While the device itself was huge and unwieldy, it overlaid a geographic grid on top of your eyesight.
So how exactly does augmented reality relate to mixed reality? They’re actually quite a bit similar, so much so that Microsoft will insist you call its HoloLens headset a mixed reality device rather than an augmented reality one. Essentially, mixed reality is like a weird in-between of virtual and augmented reality.
Think of it like this: Mixed reality is when virtual objects can interact with real objects in the world and vice versa. Imagine putting a virtual table in your room and you could then walk around the tablet. Or a version of Pokemon Go where the Pokemon could move out of the way of random people walking by. That’s mixed reality.
The technology itself can take many forms. The most popular form right now is through our smartphones. Snapchat filters can turn you into a cute dog or act as digital makeup. It can also enhance your photos and videos in fun ways, like stretching out your face or placing your head on the body of a dancing elf.
The other two major forms out there are headsets and smartglasses. Smartglasses seem to be the desired form factor for augmented reality, giving us light and easy-to-wear devices. Headsets are a little bulky, but their size is often needed to incorporate all the sensors and technology needed to run.
Oh right, sensors. Augmented reality needs a couple of different things to function. It needs a camera, because it needs to be able to see and interpret the world. It needs motion sensors, so that when you move around your device it understands where it is in relation to the world around it. It needs software that can pull all these things together and, most importantly, it needs a portable processor and battery to keep things powered and running while you’re on the go.
Augmented reality: Not just about visuals#
Alright, let’s back up a second here. Yes, augmented reality typically involves layering a bunch of graphics up against your view to alter the way you see your world. But, well, not always.
It turns out augmented reality is a more nebulous term than we realised. Bose, for instance, has been working on audio-based augmented reality. It’s pretty much exactly as it sounds. Instead of showing you layers on top of the current world, it simply tells you about what you’re looking at.
This type of AR is obviously better for those of us with impaired vision, but it also serves as a neat stop-gap as visual augmented reality tech still has a long way to go before it’s ready for consumers. Visuals need strong processors and large batteries, not to mention advanced projection tech.
Audio doesn’t need all that work. It can simply look out into the world with a camera, sense where you are and then tell you about the things you’re looking at.