What Is Augmented Reality (AR)?

Augmented reality (AR) is an enhanced version of the real physical world that is achieved through the use of digital visual elements, sound, or other sensory stimuli and delivered via technology. It is a growing trend among companies involved in mobile computing and business applications in particular.

Amid the rise of data collection and analysis, one of augmented reality’s primary goals is to highlight specific features of the physical world, increase understanding of those features, and derive smart and accessible insight that can be applied to real-world applications. Such big data can help inform companies’ decision making and gain insight into consumer spending habits, among others.

Key Takeaways

  • Augmented reality (AR) involves overlaying visual, auditory, or other sensory information onto the real world to enhance one’s experience.
  • Retailers and other companies can use augmented reality to promote products or services, launch novel marketing campaigns, and collect unique user data.
  • Unlike virtual reality, which creates its own cyber environment, augmented reality adds to the existing world as it is.

Understanding Augmented Reality

Augmented reality continues to develop and become more pervasive among a wide range of applications. Since its conception, marketers and technology firms have had to battle the perception that augmented reality is little more than a marketing tool. However, there is evidence that consumers are beginning to derive tangible benefits from this technology and expect it as part of their purchasing process.

Some experts have long speculated that wearable devices could be a breakthrough for augmented reality. Smartphones and tablets show a tiny portion of the user’s landscape, but smart eyewear, for example, may provide a more complete link between real and virtual realms if it develops enough to become mainstream.

Examples of Augmented Reality

Some early adopters in the retail sector have developed AR technologies designed to enhance the consumer shopping experience. Augmented reality has been incorporated into store catalog apps, which allows consumers to visualize what different products would look like in different environments. For example, when buying furniture, shoppers point the camera to the appropriate room and the product will appear in the foreground.

Augmented reality’s benefits can also extend to the healthcare sector, where it can play a much bigger role. AR apps enable users to see highly detailed, 3D images of different body systems when they hover their mobile device over a target image. This use of AR has become a powerful learning tool for training medical professionals.

Augmented Reality vs. Virtual Reality

Augmented reality and virtual reality are often confused, so let’s clarify. Augmented reality uses the existing real-world environment and puts virtual information—or even a virtual world—on top of it to enhance the experience. For example, think of Pokémon Go, where users are searching in their real-life neighborhoods for animated characters that pop up on their phone or tablet. In the NFL, broadcasters use AR technology to better analyze plays.

In contrast, virtual reality immerses users into an entirely different environment, typically a virtual one created and rendered by computers. For example, virtual reality users may be immersed in an animated scene or a digital environment. Virtual reality can also be used to photograph an actual local location and embed it in a VR app. Through a virtual reality headset, someone can walk around Italy as if they were actually there.

What Is Augmented Reality Used for?

Augmented reality either makes visual changes to a natural environment or enhances that environment through adding new information. It can be used for a variety of purposes, including gaming, product visualization, marketing campaigns, architecture and home design, education, and industrial manufacturing, among others.

What Are the Advantages of Augmented Reality?

Augmented reality is an interactive experience in which a real world environment is enhanced with computer-generated visual elements, sounds, and other stimuli. It can provide a user with a heightened, more immersive experience than they would experience otherwise that adds to the user’s enjoyment or understanding. From a commercial perspective, augmented reality can increase brand awareness and boost sales.

Is Augmented Reality or Virtual Reality More Realistic?

Since augmented reality uses a real world environment in conjunction with computer-generated visual elements, it may be seen as more realistic than virtual reality, which is 100% computer-generated. However, advances in technology mean that even entirely virtual environments can seem fully realistic.

The Bottom Line

Augmented reality is a technology that overlays a real world environment with a computer-generated one, enhancing the user’s experience and shifting their perspective. It can be used in everything from gaming and design to shopping and education. It is a form of mixed reality, combining the real world with digital visual elements, as opposed to virtual reality, which is entirely digital. 


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