Augmented reality has come a long way from a science-fiction concept to a science-based reality. Until recently the costs of augmented reality were so substantial that designers could only dream of working on design projects that involved it – today things have changed and augmented reality is even available on the mobile handset. That means design for augmented reality is now an option for all shapes and sizes of UX designers


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Augmented Reality is

A view of the real, physical world in which elements are enhanced by computer-generated input. These inputs may range from sound to video, to graphics to GPS overlays and more. The first conception of augmented reality occurred in a novel by Frank L Baum written in 1901 in which a set of electronic glasses mapped data onto people; it was called a “character marker”. Today, augmented reality is a real thing and not a science-fiction concept.

A Brief History of Augmented Reality

Augmented reality was first achieved, to some extent, by a cinematographer called Morton Heilig in 1957. He invented the Sensorama which delivered visuals, sounds, vibration and smell to the viewer. Of course, it wasn’t computer controlled but it was the first example of an attempt at adding additional data to an experience.

The first properly functioning AR system was probably the one developed at USAF Armstrong’s Research Lab by Louis Rosenberg in 1992. This was called Virtual Fixtures and was an incredibly complex robotic system which was designed to compensate for the lack of high-speed 3D graphics processing power in the early 90s. It enabled the overlay of sensory information on a workspace to improve human productivity

The Current State of Play in Augmented Reality

Augmented reality is achieved through a variety of technological innovations; these can be implemented on their own or in conjunction with each other to create augmented reality. They include:

  • General hardware components – the processor, the display, the sensors and input devices. Typically, a smartphone contains a processor, a display, accelerometers, GPS, camera,
  • Displays – while a monitor is perfectly capable of displaying AR data there are other systems such as optical projection systems, head-mounted displays, eyeglasses, contact lenses, the HUD (heads up display), virtual retinal displays, Eye Tap (a device which changes the rays of light captured from the environment and substitutes them with computer generated ones),Spatial Augmented Reality (SAR – which uses ordinary projection techniques as a substitute for a display of any kind) and handheld displays.
  • Sensors and input devices include – GPS, gyroscopes, accelerometers, compasses, RFID, wireless sensors, touch recognition, speech recognition, eye tracking and peripherals.
  • Software – the majority of development for AR will be in developing further software to take advantage of the hardware capabilities. There is already an Augmented Reality Markup Language (ARML) which is being used to standardize XML grammar for virtual reality. There are several software development kits (SDK) which also offer simple environments for AR development.

Use Case

Let’s explore how these IKEA are using augmented reality applications to shape the future of commerce: IKEA – IKEA’s 2014 catalog allows users to superimpose products right from the catalog to the precise area of their home/office where they would like to position the furniture via an augmented reality app for Android and iOS. This allows them to experience the look and feel of the product inside their home without having to spend a dime on it or even go to an IKEA store.

This example point to the successful adaptation of augmented reality technology into mainstream commerce functions, not just empowering customers but also building brand credibility in the process.

The Future of Augmented Reality

Jessica Lowry, a UX Designer, writing for the Next Web says that “AR is the future of design and we tend to agree. Already mobile phones are such an integral part of our lives that they might as well be extensions of our bodies; as technology can be further integrated into our lives without being intrusive (a la Google Glass) – it is a certainty that augmented reality provides opportunities to enhance user experiences beyond measure”.

This will almost certainly see major advances in the much-hyped but still little seen; Internet of Things. UX designers in the AR field will need to seriously consider the questions of how traditional experiences can be improved through AR – just making your cooker capable of using computer enhancements is not enough; it needs to healthier eating or better cooked food for users to care. The future will belong to AR when it improves task efficiency or the quality of the output of an experience for the user. This is the key challenge of the 21st century UX profession.


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The Takeaway

AR or augmented reality has gone from pipe dream to reality in just over a century. There are many AR applications in use or under development today, however – the concept will only take off universally when UX designers think about how they can integrate AR with daily life to improve productivity, efficiency or quality of experiences.