Did you forget (again) where you parked your car in the lot? There’s an app for that – and it uses a type of technology known as augmented reality. “Augmented reality” is a term for an environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated graphics or sound – in short, it blurs the line between what’s real and what’s a computer-generated image.

Unlike virtual reality, which replaces the “real world” with a simulated one, augmented reality (AR) technology enhances what’s around you. AR technology has been around for some time, but it has become more “portable” and affordable, meaning that new applications are rapidly being found for business, education, and more.

There are two major types of AR: marker-based and markerless. Marker-based AR uses a marker or image of some kind that an AR application can be programmed to identify. Markerless AR uses GPS technology and a digital compass to determine the location and direction of a camera inside a device (such as a smartphone), then overlays information pertaining to that location on the device’s display screen.

Current Uses

One popular and familiar use of AR is in sports broadcasts — you may have seen a football game on TV that includes a line that’s only visible on-screen to show the yardage needed for a first down. GPS systems for cars also use AR technology to show the maps you see as you drive.
For video games, AR technology can include head-mounted displays, goggles and/or virtual retinal displays to create an image of the world around the participant that includes simulated images as well as the player’s actual surroundings. Wii uses AR technology in its “gesture-based” computing, where the computer responds to the movements of the player. Both of these types of AR technologies are also used for military training, preparing soldiers for combat, machinery repair and operation, flight, and more.

What’s Here and What’s Coming

Because smartphones contain the necessary elements required for AR (cameras, graphics, data storage, GPS tracking capabilities, etc.), a number of new AR apps have recently been released. For instance, the Museum of London last year released an AR app for the iPhone called Streetmuseum which takes users to various locations around the city (using a map or GPS) and then asks them to click “3D View,” which recognizes the location and overlays a historical photograph of the same view, providing a glimpse of the same setting in the past. There are also AR apps available that let you track constellations in the sky, improve your golf game, and more.

In the future, potential applications for AR technology include showing homeowners how a real room might look with different paint colors, decorations, and furniture; providing supplemental content to books; and providing consumers with pricing, information and reviews when they hold a smartphone up to a product. AR technology could also be used for advertising purposes, displays, and assisting attendees at an event center find their way around.

Critics argue that the use of AR could cause too much reliance on “unreal” surroundings, and could potentially cause privacy issues if connected with photos in social media accounts (allowing you to point your phone at someone and get information about him or her), but there’s no indication that this type of technology is going away anytime soon. Experts predict that the market for augmented reality could develop into a $3 billion segment by 2016, with major implications for education and training as well as for business in the future.

For a more in-depth look at AR, check out this article: http://www.howstuffworks.com/augmented-reality.htm