Some of the most exciting tech trends of 2016 included advances in virtual reality and a resurgence in augmented reality. Last year this technology was big for gaming (think Pokémon Go). This year, watch out for applications in retail, tourism and advertising.

What is augmented reality?

Augmented reality is technology that combines virtual reality with the real world. Ronald Azuma’s widely referenced definition states that augmented reality as an application that (1) combines the real world with the virtual world, (2) is interactive and in real-time and (3) is registered in three dimensions.

For example, a user might wear translucent goggles so they can see strategically placed computer generated images on top of the real world. Alternatively, a user may view the screen of their smartphone where they can see the real world through their camera while also seeing graphic images layered over top.

Most people don’t realize that augmented reality has existed since the 1930’s. It’s recent advances in smartphone technology that has fuelled the recent hype. One example that most Americans can relate to is the yellow 1st down line painted on the field during televised football games. It’s hard to image watching the game without it.

How does it work?

There are currently 3 different ways to display augmented reality. There are head mounted displays that are worn on the head or attached to a helmet. This display can resemble goggles or glasses. In some instances, there is a screen that covers a single eye. There is also the handheld device version, such as a smartphone or a portable computer. Finally, there is spatial display, which uses projected graphical displays onto fixed surfaces. 

What are the applications of augmented reality?

Applications for augmented reality are broad, ranging from military to retail industries. Many developers credit gaming for making the technology more mainstream and creating opportunities for further development. Here are some of the current applications of the technology:


Large stores may begin to use virtual maps that can take you to the exact aisle and location of the item you’re looking for. Once you locate it, a virtual object with detailed product information can be displayed on top of the physical item. There are already search engines that allow you to point your phone’s camera at something and search for the item online.


There are many great applications for augmented reality in the tourism industry.

Museums can take guided audio tours to the next level with the addition of virtual facts and figures on top of live exhibits and displays. Interactive exhibits can be enhanced with 3D viewing technology to get a complete perspective.

Outside, sightseeing tours can be enhanced in a similar manner. Using their smartphones, tourists can walk through historic sites and see facts and figures presented as an overlay on their live screen. These applications use GPS and image recognition technology to look up data from an online database. In addition to information, applications are already being created that look back in history to show viewers how the area looked 10, 50 or even 100 years ago!

Advertising and Promotion

Augmented reality gives advertisers and brands the opportunity to integrate the digital world with the real world, which is a fresh and modern approach that appeals younger demographics. TV and film campaigns have created unique brand experiences by mapping objects and experiences onto real-time video imagery. The software identifies a unique symbol through the smartphone or webcam and then activates a graphic overlay. For example, imagine holding out your hand in front of your smartphone and watching as a small 3D character appears, sits in your palm and begins talking to you.

What’s next in augmented reality?

The tech industry is moving quickly to blend virtual and real-world information – and other industries are finding unique ways to apply it. Like all advances in technology, it will take time to work out the kinks, but the possibilities are certainly exciting.

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