We're always looking at new technologies: recently we've been exploring Augmented Reality. But what is AR and how is it used in practice?
What is Augmented Reality?
Augmented Reality (AR) is a term used for technologies that essentially display a live view of the real world overlaid with virtual elements – ‘augmenting’ the view. It's generally in real-time and in context with the live environment, which means the real world surrounding the user can become digitally interactive and usable.
Generally AR falls into one of three categories; practical, educational or recreational. You probably see AR more often than you'd expect, it's been a part of our everyday lives for some time now. Common examples appear on TV all the time, particularly in sports coverage – advertisements seemingly painted onto the pitch during a cricket match and virtual lines added to a swimming competition. These examples could even be considered ‘traditional’ AR, but the technology is increasingly being used online and in mobile services (specifically for the iPhone). The number of new augmented reality applications released for the iPhone in July 2010 was 54, which brings the total augmented reality applications available in the iTunes store to date to 605.
We’ve selected 15 of the best AR examples around, for both web and mobile. They show that AR can be useful for things you already knew you needed, as well as for some of those you didn’t…
Ideal for freelance workers, this app allows you to find your nearest free WiFi, from coffee shops to rent-a-desk office spaces.
Pocket Universe (below, left)
Ever wondered what that constellation is in the sky? Well, point your mobile phone camera at the sky with this app activated and it will tell you all you ever need to know.
DishPointer (above, right)
Originally used by satellite engineers, this app is now available for all to use. Similar to Pocket Universe this app allows users to pinpoint satellites in the sky instead.
Car Finder (right)
Have trouble remembering where you parked your car? This app lets you lay a virtual marker when you park your car so that when you need to find it again, the app can visually guide you back, pointing you in the right direction.
Tube Guide (London)
Never get lost in London again with this mobile phone app. Once activated it will use the mobile phone’s camera and highlight all the nearest tube stations as floating billboards.
Acrossair (New York)
As with the London example above but for New York, this mobile phone app will highlight all the nearest subway stations to your current location.
Although this application has been around for some time now, the AR dimension to it is relatively new. Use your smartphone's camera and the app will overlay your nearest restaurants, which can be organised by type/location/price, etc.
mTrip Travel Guides
This app will overlay all the nearby tourist attractions, restaurants, shopping and hotels on using the mobile phone’s camera.
An automotive example from Audi. For their 2010 calendar, they created an unexpected experience by printing the calendar purely as landscape images with no cars. They then invited people to download the iPhone app that would allow the calendar to be activated though AR, adding the vehicle images to each page of the calendar.
A computer example this time. Tissot’s AR product experience for their Swiss watch collection has a very clear benefit to the user. Simply print the marker (in this case a cutout of a watch), place it around your wrist and point it at your webcam to activate the ‘AR watch’. It's the perfect way for you to suss out your new wrist-wear.
Forever21 – creating buzz in Times Square
A promotional example this time. Fashion brand Forever21 used a digital billboard in Times Square to get people talking about their brand. A combination of a pre-recorded video and AR was used to make it look like a girl was literally taking a photo of the watching crowd. The AR software also identified people to composite them into the interactions with the model taking the photo in real time.
Olympus created an AR demo of the PEN E-PL1 to allow users to virtually test drive the camera. The user holds the special Olympus QR card in front of their webcam; on screen it’s replaced with a dynamic 3D Olympus E-PL1 allowing the user to interact with the camera controls, take photos, shoot video, try the flash, remove the lens and even play with the in-camera effects.
Another try before you buy example, this time from Jade Jagger http://www.jadejagger.co.uk/ & Indiska http://indiska.com/ in Stockholm. It’s a virtual dressing room AR engine (again using marker technology) that allows users to practically see what garments will look like before purchasing.
Ray-Ban Virtual Mirror
Yet another try before you buy app, this AR example from Ray-Ban allows potential customers to ‘try on’ sunglasses before purchase.
US Postal Service
In order to allow people to purchase the correct sized packing box for their parcel, the US Postal Service created a site where users could print off a marker and hold it up in front of their webcam next to the object they wished to send – the box size could then be compared to the object to see if it would fit. A genuinely useful AR application!
The above examples show there is an opportunity for brands to use AR to increase engagement with their products and services – and if it’s done well, the benefit to the brand can be enormous. However, the application of AR seems to work best when it serves a practical purpose, and is not just used for the sake of using it.