You hear the buzz all over the place: augmented reality this, augmented reality that. But, is this new technology a passing fad, a mere game, or can it be leveraged to create truly meaningful experiences that shape our world for the better? You be the judge. But first, let’s step back a bit and look at what augmented reality is, how it works, and ways it can be used for social good.
So, what is augmented reality?
Most of us learned about augmented reality about a year ago when the Pokémon Go craze swept the nation for the summer. People went crazy collecting Pokémon. Seriously loco. And, some really weird stuff happened. How does the game work? People see where a Pokémon is hidden on a map and have to travel to the location to find it. When they arrive at the location, players see an image of a Pokémon overlaid onto the real world that they can then collect. This is what makes augmented reality different from virtual reality.
In virtual reality, you wear goggles (for now) that completely immerse you in an entirely new reality. Augmented reality mixes fantasy and reality—projecting the AR object over the real world so that you see real-life and computer-generated mixed on your device. Like many technologies in their infancy, the first iterations are rather basic and let’s face it, kind of shallow. (Sorry Pokémon people!) Before we look at possible applications of AR, let’s take a look at how it works!
A Quick and Dirty How-To: AR Explained
There are two general types of augmented reality: marker-based and markerless.
Marker-based or recognition-based is the most common at this point. In this type of AR, some type of visual marker is needed to trigger the AR object—a sign, QR code, or even a 3D object. Using some sort of AR software, generally Unity or Vuforia, when a device is pointed at the marker or trigger, the AR object appears. Here’s an example of an AR experience we created that uses a painting as the trigger.
Markerless or location-based augmented reality relies on pegging the AR object to a specific place using GPS or digital compass. Essentially what Pokémon Go does, this type of AR doesn’t rely on a trigger. The AR object appears when you point your device at a specific location. This form of AR will soon be ubiquitous and has tons of applications–especially for mapping. Ok, now that you have a basic grasp of the hows, let’s turn to the juicy stuff: practical applications for AR.
Can AR be an Engine for Social Good?
Let’s be honest: we could use more tools to fuel positive change in the world. We can point to ways that tech is taking us further away from that goal, but the unique qualities of augmented reality as a medium make it particularly well-suited to ignite positive change. While AR has a host of applications for the commercial sector (IKEA is using it to allow customers to place furniture in their home before they buy it and car makers like VW will use AR in their upcoming models), it can also be used to create impactful, substance-filled interactions. From interactive learning experiences to fundraising to innovations in science, this new medium has more applications than we can even fully grasp yet.
AR is a powerful tool for interactive learning. Imagine asking a question and being able to experience the answer in 3D or, using augmented reality to let an archaeology student participate in a dig in the classroom. AR has a host of applications for the nonprofit and education sectors. Fundraising, at its root, is about connecting with people and inspiring them to care about your cause (as most of you know). Augmented reality, for all its computer-generated glory, can make a problem or solution tangible. Lastly, being able to use our bodies and minds in new ways stimulates innovation. Imagine a scientist being able to work on the cure for cancer in 3D in the air around them.
The Future of Augmented Reality is Vast and Immeasurable
These next few years (and even months) are going to provide huge leaps in augmented reality. The tech giants are engaged in a venture-fueled war to see whose AR will stick. The Microsoft HoloLens and Apple’s ARKit are two of the largest players. Google just released its own AR developer kit called ARCore. The iPhone 8 is designed to handle AR. Beyond the immediate future, we will most certainly see AR gear and physical triggers take up less space over time—tablets to phones, glasses to contact lenses, and at some point, maybe the only tool we’ll need is our brain.
The possibilities are immeasurable if only we seize this moment to invest in technology as an engine for social good.
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