What is Augmented Reality & How It Works

Augmented Reality is often referred to as “AR”. This technology has grown a huge amount in recent years as most of us have access to high-quality cameras and screens in our pockets, and therefore have the ability to download AR apps and experience this exciting tech.

What is AR?

AR is the process of adding content onto a feed from a camera so that it appears as a part of the physical world in spite of being added in real time by an app or other software. For instance, when you load up a snapchat filter. Technically, some of these are a very basic form of augmented reality. However, the tech has some far more advanced and exciting uses than this as we explore in this article.

For AR to work, it needs to have a feed from a camera and a differentiation between the digital added content and the physical content being seen on the feed. It has some distinct differences to VR, even though most people consider them closely linked. We explore in much more detail below.

Let’s look at some examples of the impact of AR and what it actually means for a consumer. For many people, thinking of examples such as snapchat can conjure the image of novelty value. While it is true that you can use AR technology for novelty, and add the appearance of bunny ears on your face, it has some more serious uses, too.

Consumers are finding AR useful for a variety of different scenarios. It can be a way to try before you buy. For instance, you can use DIY and decorating AR apps to test out different looks in your home before you actually have to install them. Some apps will even let you change the color of your walls or virtually add furniture to see if it looks good in your home.

When it all began?

The first AR systems that were developed were actually made around 30 years ago. The first that is on record is the Virtual Fixtures augmented reality system which was made by the US Air Force and designed for training. This is still one of the key uses, or at least the possible uses for augmented reality today, as more and more companies unveil more ways the tech can be useful.

So if it was invented in the 1990s, why is it only now that AR is really booming? Though it was clear back then how much potential the augmented reality software had, it was an incredibly specialist tech. Like most technologies, it took a long time to trickle down to a consumer marketplace. Also, the fact it required so much in the way of hardware and software was a huge sticking point. While it is true that 10-15 years ago, AR could technically have been far more common, it would have required us all to buy specific AR equipment.

The reason it is booming now is undoubtedly down to the fact that we have smart technology in our pockets. Smartphones already have the HD cameras and live camera feed options required. When you also add the larger memories they now have and the ability to install apps from other developers, it’s easy to see why this technology has taken off. If you consider Facebook and Snapchat as having AR capabilities then most modern smartphones have some form of AR installed!

How does AR work?

On to a little information about the technology of AR and how it works.

Naturally, the augmented reality technology starts with a camera feed. In most cases, this comes from your computer or your phone/smart device.

The camera feed is then basically deciphered by software. Computer vision or registration can give reference to where things are within an image such as walls and even landmarks if you are outdoors. Some sophisticated AR systems can use street lines and other landmarks to decipher the image. This is then interpreted and the computer vision works out where things can be added within the image. This is where it communicates once again with the user.

The display back on the phone is called a ‘terminal’ in AR linguistics. It is basically the end result of the augmented reality created by blending the original physical objects and the added AR objects.

How’s it different from VR or Mixed Reality?

AR is significantly different to VR. Some people get confused between the technologies but there are some clear differences.

Augmented reality is designed to add digital elements to live view. As we’ve already discussed, it appears like an overlay of a real image.


VR, or virtual reality, is a completely immersive type of technology. You take out the physical world and use a device such as the oculus rift to totally ‘take over’ the view of the user rather than just displaying on a screen. Also, the environments made in a VR technology can be totally imagined. They don’t need to come initially from the camera feed and can be totally built on a computer, like a game.

Mixed reality is software combining elements of both. It can use the real-world objects in an AR feed combined with VR technology and the two can impact one another and interact in interesting ways. The HoloLens is an exciting example of this tech in use.

For a simple way to remember AR vs VR differences, consider the gaming industry. VR games require a headset and to be totally immersive. AR, on the other hand, still uses the act of projecting but can be displayed on a screen. Games like Pokemon Go are brilliant examples of this, and you don’t need to wear any sort of headset to play.

As augmented reality provides an exciting experience for the user, some very useful applications and lots of possibilities for developers. Retail uses are some of the most popular at the moment, but expect to see more and more augmented reality apps and software popping up soon.

Written by Daniel Robinson

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