• Nandan V

Augmented Reality - Where are we now?

Augmented reality is the way forward or a lot of people seem to think it is. We have seen a gazillion variants of tech trying to make use of the technology but failing to get the intended result, at least from the point of view of a consumer.

We have seen applications that can augment reality but are unbelievably constrained and specific. This is a broader perspective.

What is Augmented Reality?

The literal meaning of the word augment doesn't make a lot of sense now, it fits but barely. AR comes into play when something makes you see the world not in a different way but in a rather amplified way. You will see the world as it is but you'll also see a whole lot more.

Consider this as the future which is 20 or 50 years from now. You are walking down an alley and think to yourself how nice it would be to have a snow cone. Now dropping in a snow cone into your hands which isn't there is also augmented reality. However, for a more practical approach, the tech within you (yes that's the future I want) would just show you the path towards the nearest ice cream store, it may be above or below, but your hoverboard can go anywhere you want.

Coming back to 2019 though, there has never been an AR device that works the way we imagine it would. There are a lot of quirks and wrinkles which a lot of brilliant minds are working on. We can augment reality on our phones but that is a fraction of what the technology is really capable of.

The first attempt by a major company at augmented reality would be Google glasses. It failed, miserably so. At this point in time, we must learn from them and move forward. Amazon has launched AR glasses which will be given a thorough analysis once it launches.

The Challenges

Technology cannot evolve if there are no hurdles, it will rot if we cannot identify the hurdles.

AR has quite a few, we'll be looking at a bunch of important ones for now.

1. Interaction

Why should we interact? Well, how else would we augment it without interacting with it?

Reality is a big part of our lives, we interact with it using our eyes, ears, hands. There must be a way to interact with the augmented version as well. Right now, the only choice is what you're probably using right now, our smartphones and smartwatches. Voice assistants are a part of these devices or embedded into the AR device and offer another pathway for interaction.

2. Horsepower

The power of a qubit

Real-time processing and augmenting reality in any big way is a fair bit out of reach. We can look up to cloud computing and the recent "negative latency" claims by Stadia but there is still a long way to go. Augmenting reality means absorbing the world and adding more details, like the price of the furniture you're looking at or the tickets to the movie whose poster you just saw.

Instantaneous retrieval and overlaying it over the frame just captured takes a lot of computing power. We can make use of AI to scrape things in the vicinity which people have already looked at and therefore intelligently cache what you're most likely interested in so as to cut down on network delays as much as possible. Although, with the advent of 5G and talk of 6G already underway, these delays could end up being minuscule within a decade.

The real thing to worry about is getting it out onto your personal reality feed. We are a lot closer to it than ever.

3. Altering Vision

Reality is just a stable isotope

Indeed, the most common way most of us interact with reality is through vision. The boom of AR glasses is proof enough. Google made use of prisms to project a display onto the glass which not at all intuitive. There have been numerous attempts afterwards which aimed at firing lasers directly onto our retinas and displaying the augmentation there.

None of these truly augment reality. They just add a label on top of it. True augmentation would be possible only if what we see is the augmented reality, this borders the realm of virtual reality, but nothing is virtual. The furthest technology has gone to achieve this is seen is EVFs or Electronic Viewfinders in the latest mirrorless cameras. These EVFs are capable of outlining the focussed part of an image, altering the brightness and contrast (yet maintaining reality) and presenting it to your brain.

The sci-fi nerd in me is conjuring contact lenses with flexible displays and a full array of sensors, detaching us yet keeping us very well within reality.

To the people who question the existence of said reality, none of this matters.

4. The power of touch

Yet another way of imparting flavor into reality is through touch. Disney, a long while ago, had plans for a tablet which aimed at doing exactly this. The surface of the display would have the ability to be rough or smooth. Although not augmenting reality, rather presenting it to you. That tech hasn't seen the light of day, yet.

Farfetched ideas in a nobody's blog. Probably. I hope you had fun and a lot more questions.


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