The evolution of augmented reality

We’re entering a new age for technology where augmented reality is working to improve human lives, but how did we get here?

The augmented reality industry is booming! It’s expected to grow from US$1.72billion in 2014 to a whopping US$50.6 billion in 2020, showing just how rapid the uptake of this technology by modern consumers is expected to be.

Despite the sudden burst in popularity for augmented reality (AR), the concept isn’t new. The technology’s pioneers have been working away on it for decades.

They’ve been refining it in anticipation of the era we are in now, where camera-carrying smartphones are commonplace in people’s pockets, and computer generated imagery can be cast right into the heart of glass. So let’s follow the path for augmented reality, from then to now.

The History of augmented reality

Augmented reality works by overlaying computer generated images over a representation of the real world, therefore supplementing its appearance in some way.

Unlike Virtual Reality, which seeks to wholly emerge your senses into a virtual landscape, augmented reality remains rooted in the real world, just adding more information to it.

The 60s: A humble beginning

In truth, both augmented reality and virtual reality (VR) share a common ancestry. It began with the work of Morton Heilig, who between 1957 and 1962 invented and eventually released the Sensorama.

It was an arcade cabinet that users placed their head in to watch a film, simultaneously having all their senses – including touch and smell – impacted. The first “film” was a motorbike driving through the streets of Brooklyn, which made the user feel like they were on the bike.

During this same period, Heilig also invented the Telesphere Mask, which provided a similar experience, but in the first head-mounted display.

Later that decade, in 1968, another pioneer would take Heilig’s work a step further. Electrical engineer Ivan Sutherland built a head-mounted display that showed not film, but rudimentary computer-generated graphics – little more than wireframes.

This paved the way for Myron Krueger to create the first truly AR experience with the Artificial Reality Lab. In this room-sized experience that ran from 1969 to 1974, users interacted with each other through silhouettes displayed on a screen.

The 70s: First head-mounted display

By 1978, inventor Steve Mann had finally detached the head-mounted display from a computer, creating the first wearable computers – most notably the EyeTap.

The 80s: First mainstream appearance

The first real mainstream appearance of AR, however, can be traced to the work of software engineer Dan Reitan in 1982. His little piece of trickery was to place visual graphics – like rain and lightning – over maps while meteorologists passed on their forecast on TV.

The 90s: A rose by any other name

The term, “augmented reality” itself would not officially be coined until 1990. Tom Caudell, a researcher for airplane manufacturer Boeing, holds the honour.

He used it to describe a process he developed where the schematics for a plane’s electric wiring could be projected onto a blank board by the use of a head-mounted display.

During the 1990s, the research into what augmented realty could do began to increase rapidly. The US Air Force started using AR in 1992 to help operate machinery in remote areas, and in 1996 Sony showed how images on cards could be used as triggers for AR displays to show holographic images in the real world.

By 1999 sports broadcasters were drawing arrows and lines over the top of imagery from the game to provide viewers with more detailed expert analysis, and soldiers also began to wear visors that fed information to them about their environment.  

The 00s: Gaming in the ‘real world’

In 2000, students at the University of South Australia managed to turn video game Quake into a real world experience, with enemies appearing to run across the campus.

So by the turn of the century the technology was ready and its many applications had been proven, but it was still too clunky and expensive to become mainstream friendly. Something more was needed, and that something appears to have been smartphones.  

Modern augmented reality

The release of the iPhone in 2007 and then its subsequent iterations and smartphone offerings from rival manufacturers, would put into pockets the two most important ingredients for the AR recipe: A rear-facing camera and a touchscreen.

This allowed for an image of the real world to be displayed on a screen in real-time, on which computer generated imagery could be overlayed and interacted with.

Video game consoles also became a hotbed for augmented reality. Sony’s PlayStation Camera, combined with the card concept it had been working on since 1994, ushered in stunning games like WonderBook and Invizimals.

While Microsoft’s Kinect allowed humans to become the controller, interacting directly with computer-generated AI characters that appeared in their lounge-rooms.

As each year has passed, the processing power and camera quality has improved, bringing with it an increase in the complexity of AR software. Screens are becoming cheaper and more-embeddable, turning up on everything from fridges to car dashboards.

Ultimately these screens have become refined enough to appear in wearables such as glasses. From the practical, to entertaining and the bizarre, AR is now fully upon us. 

The future of augmented reality

The ability for software to better recognise what the camera can see in the real world and then overlay its information in the most efficient and effective way possible is the challenge for the technology’s future makers.

As well as finding more comfortable and cost effective ways of getting a screen between the human eye and the real world.

We’re seeing the like of Google Glass wearables, and OLED glass screens evolve and offer more options. And Microsoft is busy working on its HoloLens, which looks to combine its might and reach in the PC, phone, console and tablet sectors to push AR forward.

One thing for sure is that while now is the time for augmented reality to take root in our society, we’ve still yet to see what is truly possible.

There are certainly some exciting prospects in our connected future. Read more about AR, and what it could mean for your lifestyle at home.