Augmented reality ( AR) has been around for a long time, but it’s only recently that AR has gained momentum in working its way into the mainstream. Before the viral success of Pokémon Go, the app that surpassed 100 million downloads in just a few weeks, AR had been largely overshadowed by virtual reality. Pokémon Go seemed to surface at exactly the right time and on the right platform to revive interest in AR, helping to set it up for what now looks to be an interesting future.

AR versus VR – what’s the difference?

As technologies advance, the definitions of augmented and virtual reality are in flux. The Merriam-Webster dictionary gives us the following:

Virtual reality: an artificial world of images and sounds created by a computer that is affected by the actions of a person who is experiencing it
Augmented reality: an enhanced version of reality created by the use of technology to overlay digital information of an image of something being viewed through a device

Kyle Samani (ReadWrite) adds that AR must ‘superimpose an image on a user’s view of the real world […] in a way that intelligently blends the virtual objects into the real world’. It’s not enough to simply overlay a static image or piece of text – the AR technology must be able to blend into or interact with reality in a “spatially intelligent way”.

An example of this is InkHunter, an app that helps you “try on” a tattoo before you have it permanently inked. Instead of a simple overlay on your camera (where you’d need to move it to take a quick screenshot of it in the right place) the image attaches by detecting a hand-drawn smiley face on your skin. This means you can move your device to get a view of the fake tattoo from different angles, without the placement changing.

Are AR and VR naturally isolating?

Tracy Lien for the LA Times described AR as “virtual reality’s less glamorous, less isolating cousin”, and we’re being presented with more and more reasons to agree.

Virtual reality has gained a reputation as an isolating space, inviting users to leave the real world for one for a virtual one. Even considering Facebook’s teases for Oculus Social, we might not see a truly social VR until the devices are more accessible – and yes, a lot of that is to do with the price tag.

For something like this to work socially, it needs to catch on. This means that, to an extent, the popularity of the AR has the power to dictate how successful it is as a ‘social space’.

As a free mobile app that could rely on an already well-known and loved franchise, Pokémon Go functioned as a gateway into social AR. The ability to see the same digital monsters in the same real-world space enabled shared experience, and ultimately encouraged traditional social behaviour. The app drew users together to roam the city, catch Pokémon, hatch eggs, and physically team up with friends to battle for gyms.

Adapting to a new definition of “social”

The definition of “social” is constantly evolving. With online communication and the rise of social media, the scope for social interaction is wider than ever.

Since September 2015, Snapchat’s “Lenses” have enabled 150 million users to create an augmented reality of the “selfie”, and the nature of the application encourages sharing the AR as part of a contemporary social experience. And if the rumours are true, we could be seeing even more AR exploration and development from Snapchat in the future.

Other platforms are using AR to create a combination of traditional and contemporary social experience. Tagxy is an app that lets users place ‘tags’ (AR content) on everyday objects and places for other users to find and interact with. This “social treasure hunt” panders to social experiences in the age of social media, whilst facilitating engagement with the “real world”.

We’ve seen the augmented reality platform Aurasma dominate this space for a long time, collaborating with everyone from Disney to Budweiser. Vuforia, Blippar, and LAYAR have all also established themselves as key players in the AR world, but we’re seeing lots of smaller developments arise as AR prepares for what could be a huge breakthrough.

Education through social AR

In August, RYOT Media posted a video demonstrating another way that AR can serve a social purpose – this time regarding education. The video shows a teacher in downtown Los Angeles, promising to take her young students to “the most famous museum in the entire world”. The class enter a white room of empty frames. Through iPads, they watch as the frames are populated with some of the greatest pieces of art in history. “We couldn’t bring the kids to the Louvre”, the screen reads, “So we brought the Louvre to the kids.” 

Virtuali-Tee is another education-based AR app. It received over £70,000 from backers on Kickstarter, and for £22, backers receive a t-shirt that interacts with the free Virtuali-Tee app. By looking at the shirt through the app on your mobile device, you get a 360° animated view of the body’s anatomy – and with the addition of a VR headset, you can take a look around from the inside. The app is being geared towards parents, children, and schools, as part of a larger mission to inspire the younger generations with educational tech.

These examples show a future for AR that surpasses entertainment and “technology for technology’s sake”. Augmented reality can provide not only a social space, but one in which education and journalism can work together to create rich social experiences.

What next?

It’s one thing for AR to function with intelligent spatial awareness; it’s another entirely for AR to respond to multiple users, experiencing the same augmented version of reality at the same time. We could be seeing this explored in both AR and VR in the future!

While VR hurtles towards immersive experience, AR is making a case for itself as an accessible overlay on reality – accessible being the key word. When compared with virtual reality, AR has very few barriers to entry. For the most part, you don’t need anything more than a smartphone and an internet connection. And if AR is accessible, it stands a better chance of integrating with everyday social experiences, and achieving longevity.

So what could we be expecting from augmented reality in the future? The RYOT Media Louvre video is a great example of the educational direction that we could see it take off in. AR in the classroom could provide educators with the opportunity to enhance the engagement of students of all ages.

Total Immersion further discuss the possibilities for AR in e-commerce, digital marketing, geolocation, and even in industrial, military, and medical applications. 

Posted December 9th 2016
Steph Rathbone
Steph is Jollywise's Content Executive and resident bookworm.