The technology behind augmented reality has been in existence for almost three decades, but a series of events has brought it to the brink of mainstream acceptance.
The processing power of smartphones, improved mobile data speeds and expanding cloud-hosted resources are collectively shaping a future where AR will transform our lives.
This industry is predicted to be worth over $100 billion by 2021.
But what is AR, and how is it likely to affect the way we use our phones in future?
Defining augmented reality
If you’ve ever played Pokémon Go, or added a Snapchat filter to a live selfie, you’re already familiar with augmented reality.
At its simplest, AR overlays computer graphics across our field of vision, like the head-up displays fitted in many modern cars.
However, AR is capable of far more than superimposing dog ears onto selfies, which is why the world’s tech giants are investing billions of pounds into research and development.
Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook have all set up dedicated divisions or companies to develop this technology, competing with crowd-funded startups and established brands.
The new IKEA Place app demonstrates AR’s potential, projecting items of furniture into a room to demonstrate whether they fit, whether the colours might clash, and so on.
The Smithsonian in Washington has animal skeletons on display, while an AR app overlays muscle and flesh to showcase how each creature looked while it was alive.
Commercial applications like these underpin the huge sums presently being invested in AR’s development, which some experts predict may be as life-changing as the internet itself.
Coming to market
Imagine walking down your local high street – assuming internet shopping hasn’t killed it off – with a full roster of AR applications embedded in your phone.
You might see a suit in a shop window and scan it using the phone’s camera, seeing your face superimposed over the mannequin’s to demonstrate whether the tailoring and colour suit you.
Pointing your camera at a restaurant menu may bring up recent TripAdvisor reviews, table availability, the ingredients of particular dishes or even the council’s latest hygiene report.
AR could also identify potential dangers in the road before you cross, scanning for cyclists or highlighting hazards that you’d otherwise miss in a busy urban environment.
Safety and marketing represent key drivers in AR’s development, but its potential uses extend far beyond our high streets.
Surgeons could view a patient’s medical data and vital signs during operations, while emergency services might use architectural plans to navigate around unfamiliar buildings.
A blend of live action and graphical overlays would enable companies to deliver realistic (yet affordable) training simulations in a safe environment.
From a consumer perspective, AR user guides would make assembling furniture or operating new electrical appliances far easier than relying on instruction manuals or YouTube tutorials.
Will AR replace handsets altogether?
Ironically, the technology intended to revolutionise our smartphones will ultimately kill them off.
The logical endgame for AR is a pair of lightweight spectacles, projecting information onto the inside of each lens.
This would be far more efficient than walking around staring at a screen rather than where we’re going.
Google’s decision to resurrect its cancelled Glass project suggests augmented reality’s future lies in head-mounted attire rather than handsets.
However, the progression from smartphone to smart glasses will take at least five years.
Do I need to buy a different handset in the meantime?
The simple answer is no – for the next few years, at least.
AR technology is still in the developmental stages, and it’ll be the mid-2020s before devices like Microsoft’s HoloLens evolve into viable smartphone replacements.
Wearables also need to offer stable WiFi/5G connectivity, call functionality and audio inputs/outputs to supplant today’s mobile phones and tablets.
Even then, it’s hard to see how encrypted group chats or social media posts could be handled without a keyboard, though Iron Man-style projected interfaces may represent a workaround.
AR isn’t going to change the world overnight. Instead, breakthrough developments like Pokémon Go will raise consumer awareness of this technology’s potential.
Ongoing refinements to virtual assistants ought to increase the reliability of voice-controlled AR, encouraging users to prioritise verbal commands over typing.
Increased consumer trust in wireless rechargeable devices such as Apple AirPods will play a role, alongside growing enthusiasm for internet-enabled wearable devices like FitBits.
And unlike today’s omnipresent smartphones, unplugging from AR will be as simple as taking off our glasses or headsets.