It started as a futuristic vision, but it didn’t stay that way very long. Augmented and virtual reality are fast earning their place as part of what is normal: an almost essential, well-accepted facet of modern life.
But what are they, exactly? Augmented reality is simply the notion that we can add computer-generated elements seamlessly into our personality reality. Let your messenger chat heads pop up in front of you as eat your breakfast, for instance, or get your flight information beamed up above your mirror as you brush your teeth in the morning. It leaves you with a blend of real and virtual life; a blend that has the potential to make your life easier, more productive, or more rewarding.
It’s not a new idea; although the name was coined in 1990, the concept had been proposed way back in 1950. A pair of glasses that could record every user experience, a headset that brought virtual, movable 3D objects into a wearable playing field. Developers let their imaginations loose on a concept that promised a whole new facet of human experience, and they met various degrees of success.
Maybe the closest we got to the dream was in 2012, when Google brought out Google Glass, a lightweight ‘wearable computer’ which allowed you to keep track of your life without looking down at your smartphone. Their prototype was short-lived if anything: announced to the world with fanfare in April 2012 and disappearing just as suddenly and dramatically in January 2015. Before it slid off the books, though, it did something important: it took the notion of augmented reality out of the realm of sci-fi and into everyday life for normal people.
And there’s more out there than just Google. Microsoft, for instance, and the Hololens are there in the domain as well. Although no one pretends it’s ready for the public, they’ve got a powerful augmented reality headset that is pushing the bar in the developer realm.
And then there’s virtual reality. What is the difference? With virtual reality you’re not looking out at your breakfast; you’re looking at a screen, but if your VR environment is well designed you’ll feel you’re out in that world rather than this one. Your virtual reality environment may have elements of your real life in it, and this can blur the distinction between real and virtual even further.
At least, if you’ve got your screen up before your eyes on a headset. That’s where Oculus Rift came in: a pair of futuristic goggles that allows you to immerse yourself completely in 3D worlds that were made upon a computer; worlds that are completely imaginary, but as responsive to your actions as if you were standing up in them. Highly popular among gamers, Oculus Rift is the bottom line right when it comes to head-mounted monitors.
For those who don’t want to shell out the big bucks, a simpler virtual reality experience is made accessible through Google Cardboard: open source plans that allow anyone to make their own VR headset with five dollars worth of material: cardboard, lenses, and a few basic fittings. Slip your smartphone in your brand new headset and start gaming, or take one of the many other uses of VR out for a spin.
Because neither VR or AR is just the toy of gamers, real-life applications of virtual reality include medical training, architectural planning, and education. Augmented reality is used by Boeing engineers to bring their airplane blueprints to life, by doctors to find veins for IVs, and by DIY car repairmen as they try to sort out what’s inside their engine.
Where are augmented and virtual reality headed? The future looks bright. Expect to see an explosion of practical uses for both virtual and augmented reality in the next few years. Book pages and computer screens no longer bind information, and a fully integrated, fully practical reincarnation of augmented and virtual realities is on its way in.