Augmented reality has been a hot but experimental topic over the past five years. Will wearable hardware bring AR to the masses?

Augmented reality, defined as a live view of a physical environment that is superimposed with computer-generated content such as video, audio, or images, has been around for a long time. The first head-mounted AR system was developed in the 1960s by Ivan Sutherland at Harvard. The most well-known use of AR, the first down line in football broadcasts, was conceived and patented in 1978 and first seen on TV screens 20 years later.

But AR has recently gained more consumer popularity due to the growth of smartphones and their camera capabilities. There are plenty of augmented reality mobile apps, and TechApna lists their ten favorite apps here. More brands are implementing AR into their advertising. And print publications are using AR to make their issues more interactive, with Esquire leading the way (starting with augmented reality pages in their December 2009 issue that come to life when placed in front of a computer’s webcam, to their December 2012 issue where users can scan every article, ad, or photo to share or shop). Still, the technology hasn’t quite achieved widespread acceptance, and most people can’t tell you what augmented reality means.

My First Use of Smartphone Augmented Reality

I first interacted with smartphone AR using the Layar app when I got a Motorola Droid five years ago. After downloading the app, I could hold up my phone to view the surrounding environment through the camera lens and Layar would use “geo-layers” to superimpose the view with information about places to eat and drink, metro stops, ATMs, and other points of interest nearby.

I thought it was so cool at first. But after using the app a few times, I found that 1) it was weird to walk around holding up my phone, and I bumped into stuff, and 2) I thought it was easier to just do a local search with Google or Yelp. The usability of AR smartphone apps like Layar didn’t really fit into my normal everyday behavior; maybe many others agreed, since Layar pivoted to focus on helping publishers use AR to create more interactive content. And I don’t know anyone who uses Monocle, the AR function of the Yelp app that is similar to Layar.

My point is that for this technology to gain widespread acceptance, not only does the content have to be good (which for most cases, it already is), but how that content is accessed by the user has to be seamless and non-disruptive. Humans do not enjoy bumping into things.

Wearable Augmented Reality Hardware May Be the Answer

Though these types of products probably won’t hit the market until next year, there has been an extraordinary amount of innovation and progress made in bringing wearable AR to the masses. Google Glass has made the most noise and rightfully so; the demo video is awesome, Google is a marketing machine, and almost everything that the company builds is great. Oakley and Microsoft have followed suit. Lesser-known companies like Vuzix are building augmented reality hardware and software for both consumers and industrial workers. And we can’t forget about the augmented reality contact lens.

There will surely be improvements in smartphone AR, especially with Apple getting into the game. More brands will use the technology to interact with their customers and maybe even to facilitate purchases. More publishers will follow Esquire’s lead and use AR to engage readers. But we think that wearable AR hardware will ultimately usher augmented reality to the masses. Even though wearable AR seems like something out of a Mission: Impossible movie, everyone knows how to wear glasses and contact lenses, which makes the AR delivery mechanism much less obtrusive to users and more incorporated into daily habits. Similar to the adoption of many new technologies, a few years may pass before this takes shape, but it will happen soon enough.

What are your thoughts on wearable augmented reality, or AR in general? Do you currently use AR apps, and do you see yourself using something like Google Glass in the future? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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Image credit: Leonard Low

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