How augmented reality is redefining entertainment

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Google received plenty of attention this past summer when it announced Google Glasses, possibly the highest-profile use of augmented reality (AR) yet. The glasses incorporate AR data to provide users with information directly on the eyeglass display. By now, you may be familiar with all the ways that Google Glasses could change the future, redefining our interactions with technology. What you may not be aware of are the many lesser-known AR projects in development.

Many smaller vendors are using AR in ways that will blow your mind. Although the apps and ideas have yet to garner the attention directed at Google Glasses, they are definitely worth checking out. Here are some examples of how augmented reality is being used and developed for mobile apps today, and how the technology is advancing at an astonishing rate.

AR’s mobile invasion

The term augmented reality was first coined in the 1990s, but the idea behind it is even older. It’s based on the concept of manipulating reality using technology and sending that information back to the user, who can then interact with AR-enabled apps to manipulate their surroundings on the screen in front of them. Unlike the AR of the past, today’s AR is centered less on the idea of wearing specialized headsets, and more on using cameras to distort reality. Now that every smartphone features a solid camera, AR has made significant strides in the mobile app market. Augmented reality can integrate aspects of the real world into the digital world using information sent from our smartphone’s cameras. An app can sense the geometry of objects we see in the real world and turn that geometry into a digital landscape.

AR-enabled mobile apps work by taking an image that you've snapped of your surroundings using your phone’s camera and superimposing that data on the image of the actual landscape. In effect, the apps turn your mobile device into a channel that combines virtual imagery with your actual surroundings. This allows you to interact with an altered view of your surroundings.

Real player: Gaming apps with amazing AR functions


A great example of such an app is Piclings, an iOS game that uses the iPhone’s camera to create level layouts for the game. The game recognizes the images taken by the camera, redefines them digitally, and incorporates them into the game world.

There are also games that are capable of integrating live camera feeds as well as still photos, such as Star Wars Arcade: Falcon Gunner. The iPhone’s camera captures what is in front of the player in real life, and then integrates it into the game. When players are looking at a landscape of mountains, they’ll be shooting down TIE fighters in the same background that actually exists in front of them.

Using AR apps for educational purposes

Although augmented reality has shown innovation in mobile entertainment, the technology has great potential beyond fun and games. A well-known app that demonstrates the best that AR has to offer is Google Sky Map. This Android app lets you point your smartphone camera to the sky and identify the stars, constellations, and planets above you. Details and scenery change in real time as you move your handset across the sky.

A similar app exists for iOS called Star Walk, which also tells you exactly what stars, constellations, and satellites you’re looking at as you point your device at the sky. The camera records both your position in relation to the sky and where you’re pointing. It then presents information to you about the cosmos. The app also has a feature called Time Machine that shows you what the sky looked like in the past or will look like in the future.

Such apps allow mobile devices to become educational tools and can aid students in a wide range of fields. Astronomy is a prime example, but think of the possibilities in fields such as anatomy and medicine. For example, you could use augmented reality to see where each body part is located, what it looks like under the skin, and how it functions.

Google Sky Maps

AR as a tool for navigation

Another great use for AR is as a navigation tool. An example of an app that takes advantage of AR in this way is Spyglass for iOS, which turns your iOS device into an outdoor toolkit with a wide range of features. Spyglass includes a milspec compass, a gyrocompass, maps, a GPS tracker, a speedometer, a sniper’s rangefinder, a sextant, a gyro horizon, an inclinometer, an angular calculator, and a 5X zoom camera.


However, what makes it such an interesting tool is the way it incorporates AR into its features. Spyglass can find, tag, and track multiple locations, bearings, and aspects of the sky in real time thanks to its 3D augmented reality; it also gives you automatic feedback depending on where you’re pointing your device’s camera. Such tools have incredible potential for navigation and travel, especially if the apps don’t need to rely on a data network or Wi-Fi connection to work. If a user’s coordinates and geographical information are stored within the app, the information can be provided via AR feedback rather than online connectivity.

Mobile AR browsers take AR to the streets

Some specialized mobile browsers offer augmented-reality capabilities, such as the Wikitude World Browser, which is available for Android, iOS, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone users. Wikitude overlays AR information within the app, displaying live information as the smartphone points to stores, hotels, scenery, and the locations around the user. The company behind Wikitude also created AR window, a tool geared for website developers that overlays information in ordinary webpages based on camera feeds.

These apps show the potential for AR to become an indispensable tool—especially as more development continues to provide more functionality. In addition to smartphones, tablets, headsets, and nearly any device with a camera can push the boundaries of AR technology.

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