The Future Will Look Like a Pop-Up Video, Because Augmented Reality Is Starting to Be a Thing

Technology moves so fast today, it can be hard to keep up. We’ve only just begun to wrap our heads around the implications of virtual reality (VR), and now augmented reality (AR) is starting to make headlines, too. While VR intends to transport us to entirely new places, the goal of AR is to seamlessly overlay virtual elements onto the real world — like that superimposed first-down line on NFL broadcasts, or the holographic speedometer that new Audis and BMWs project up onto their windshields.

In the first big AR move by a major vendor, Microsoft has started accepting preorders for its HoloLens system. (The intended market is software developers, with a reported price of $3,000.) Google’s first take on AR, its wearable-tech prototype Google Glass (Explorer Edition), hit resistance from the public, but leaked photos indicate version 2.0 is in the works. Google is also a big investor in Magic Leap, a startup developing its own augmented reality technology that so far remains shrouded in secrecy.

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CastAR, started by two former engineers from the Valve virtual reality team that ultimately created the HTC Vive Pre, also received a new round of funding in 2015, prompting the company to voluntarily refund the $1m it received from Kickstarter backers as a show of goodwill. A fourth contender, Meta, is also hoping to find a place in the quickly developing AR market.

Hardware developers clearly see the potential for AR to grow, and marketers are taking notice as well. Early AR marketing campaigns have been based on smartphone image recognition technology, like Häagen-Dazs’ “Concerto Timer” app, which made a virtual violinist appear to hover over the cap of any pint of the luxe ice cream brand when viewed through a phone running the app. Using similar technology, Topps briefly offered augmented reality baseball cards in 2009.

Perhaps the most talked-about use of augmented reality is virtual dressing rooms, which allow consumers to try on a dozen styles in seconds. Converse created a “Shoe Sampler” app in 2010 to do just that. Another much-touted feature is the ability to see how items might look in one’s home before purchasing them. IKEA reported that 14 percent of its customers end up buying furniture that doesn’t fit in its intended location, and, to solve this problem, incorporated an AR sizing feature in its 2014 Catalog App. Another sizing app, the Virtual Box Simulator, helps USPS customers solve the often difficult task of finding the best size box for items they wish to ship.

With the appearance of advanced AR gear, more robust applications are emerging. Walgreens teamed with Google’s Project Tango, an experimental 3D scanning tablet, to offer in-store navigation. Users “discover personalized coupons, offers and rewards that ‘pop out’ of the shelf along their in-store route, along with collecting loyalty rewards just for walking down aisles.” The project is an early indication of how companies will use AR technology to individualize experiences for their customers.

Smart glasses, heads-up displays, and virtual worlds superimposed on ours all seem like the stuff of science fiction — some people have even taken to calling AR “Terminator-vision” — but clearly the technology is catching up to our imaginations. Plus, wearable AR plays nicely with today’s mobile-centric consumer. VR is being billed as an escape from reality, but AR is firmly planted in the here and now. Don’t be surprised when you start seeing it everywhere.