Augmented reality often gets mixed in with virtual reality as a far-off concept tangible only through science fiction. Actually, it's not only much different from VR, but also quietly creeping into real life with the potential to completely change how we see and interact with the world. Whereas virtual reality refers to a purely artificial world with visuals and sounds created by a computer that can be affected by a user, augmented reality is an enhanced version of reality with visuals and/or sounds that are overlaid onto a user's perception of the real world.
Plenty of companies are experimenting with AR products today in various ways. Google Glass is perhaps the most famous, a set of "glasses" that overlay information about the world onto a user's field of vision — opening up a world of opportunity through various apps. Magic Leap is a smaller company venturing into the same field with just as big of a vision by using a technology that projects images directly onto your eye, making it seem as though they occupy the real 3-D space in front of you. Neither are to be confused with Oculus, whose Oculus Rift headset is a VR product in the strictest sense: its goal is to immerse wearers completely into a virtual world that they can directly control to varying degrees.
So what can augmented reality do for you?
Kyle Samani, a cofounder and CEO of Pristine, a maker of video-based field-service solutions, wrote for ReadWrite recently that some AR technologies simply provide "the equivalent of 'gluing a phone to your face' " and nothing more to the user. That is to say, maybe some products have the ability to give you a set of glasses that can show your heart rate in the middle of your field of vision as you run, but they aren't very thoughtful uses of the technology.
A real game-changing example of augmented reality comes from a sleek "interface" that pushes such convenient but not crucial data to the side or corner, and reacts dynamically depending on the tasks you're doing. For example, the above GIF shows a person opening their email through Magic Leap, quickly scrolling through it, and then waving it away when done. Such a real-life use case for AR sets up an incredible amount of potential for the technology. As the Internet of Things continues its march towards dominance, it'll be interesting to see what role augmented "things" play within it. Think of how an educational headset at a museum exhibit can enhance your knowledge of the paintings, sculptures, and more as you walk up to them. What if AR one day mapped that sort of enriching experience onto anything you saw, if you so chose?
If you could be the master of every object around you, real or virtual, that's a truly impressive power indeed.
Cover image: Flickr