Augmented reality (AR) took the world by storm with Pokemon Go. The app used AR to overlay digital images of Pokemon creatures on to a live view of the gamer’s surroundings. Virtual reality (VR) is also an incredibly significant form of modern technology, consisting of devices like the Oculus Rift whereby users can be transported to real-world and fantasy places, totally immersing the user and replacing real-life surroundings completely.

Although augmented reality and virtual reality technologies have existed for more than 30 years, neither have been available to the public until fairly recently. To understand the advanced nature of both augmented and virtual reality as it is today, knowledge of the developmental history of such technology is necessary.

The birth of AR/VR

The beginnings of AR and VR can be identified long before modern computing technology was born, but the head-mounted display technology that we associate with AR and VR today originates from in 1968 when Professor Ivan Sutherland created The Sword of Damocles. The system relied upon a general-purpose computer, a clunky headset suspended from above. Although Sutherland is often credited for the invention of the Head-Mounted Display, in 1961 Philco (a company in Philadelphia), developed a method whereby there was a camera was in one room and a user sat in another with the display. Although this may simply resemble television or film, the VR element comes in because magnets were used to match the position of the camera with the position of the user’s head – displaying the user visuals as if they were witnessing it first hand.

Where we are now

With smartphones being so integral in the contemporary world, screens have become an essential component in our everyday lives. We are constantly enclosed in a world of screens, and companies have embraced this by developing a variety of virtual reality and artificial reality products and devices to optimise the screen user’s experience. As I have previously mentioned, Pokémon Go is an immensely successful example of this, as the developers achieved a adoption of augmented reality.

Snapchat and Facebook have created highly popular filters that can be applied to images, which many people would not associate with augmented reality, but that is exactly what it is. Earlier this year Snapchat also introduced a “Shoppable AR” feature as an element of its augmented reality lenses: users can simply tap a button to open a webpage which functions to promote a product or sign-up page; there is also a video option designs to give users access to trailers and how-to short videos. Not only is AR and VR used for entertainment purposes, but can be an excellent tool for marketing and advertising.

The most common and popular approach to VR experiences is through Smartphones with headsets. This shows that although the early examples of the technology that were experimented with in the 1960s were disadvantaged by lack of technological know-how, as it stands today, VR and AR has some clear resemblances to the headset style of the early trials. Virtual reality is a lot more sophisticated than augmented reality as the software and hardware to create immersive VR experiences are already established at a high standard. For example, systems like the Oculus Rift, along with 360 cameras have made virtual reality experiences far more advanced. Virtual reality has applications in various industries such as real estate and tourism. For instance, the Visitor’s Bureau in Jerusalem has used virtual reality to immerse tourists in the city as it looked 5,000 years ago. New applications of virtual reality experiences are being released across the globe all the time.

Although augmented reality does not quite compare to the standard of virtual reality in terms of maturity as a result of the limitations of the technology and higher cost, it is already being deployed in industries such as healthcare, construction, and logistics. Often, augmented reality experiences are presented through headsets, such as HoloLens. There are early signs that the technology is set to hold substantial commercial weight on the market. This is clear from the success of artificial reality Snapchat features and Pokemon Go, but more advancements need to come in order for it to catch up with virtual reality.

There is a community of people already convinced that we live in a simulated not dissimilar to the ‘plugged in’ world in the Matrix, and although that may be quite an exaggeration of our current existence and perception of the world around us, as more possibilities are discovered for augmented reality and virtual reality, the technology will undoubtedly become more and more integrated into our everyday lives. Location no longer restricts what people can see; in fact, even time is not a limitation as virtual reality headsets can take people into the past and view what locations once looked like. Augmented reality will also inevitably be further deployed through apps to add moving image overlays to our surroundings, and I am sure more ways to use the technology will be found to give it commercial power comparable to virtual reality.