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What it means. "Augmented reality" sounds very "Star Trek," but what is it, exactly? In short, AR is defined as "an artificial environment created through the combination of real-world and computer-generated data." It's not the same thing as virtual reality, which is probably a more familiar term to many of us: VR is a completely computer-generated environment that stands in for reality, whereas AR takes real-world, real-time environments and adds digital enhancements, to enable interactivity and convey extra information.
Why the buzz? At the Consumer Electronics Show this past January, amid the TVs, tablets, ultrabooks, and myriad other gadgets, the term rose above the din more than once. Augmented reality is not a brand-new technology, but it's being integrated into electronics devices more and more—currently, for example, we're seeing it used in toys to enhance their entertainment and play value. Check out WowWee's App Gear and Disney's AppMATes to see just a couple of ways that this technology is being implemented.
How else can augmented reality be used? One current use of AR is a reference app for your smart phone: Layar, for example, which uses a phone's GPS, camera, compass, and accelerometer and a mobile Web connection to find and display all kinds of real-time data on whatever you're viewing through the camera. AR may also show up someday soon as real-time navigational information that's embedded in a car's front window—or used in back-seat windows for the amusement and edification of younger passengers.
Augmented reality can also be used in video games, adding to the fun and play options, as in this children's app we reviewed, Ruff Ruffman's Lunch Rush. And AR could pop up in a hardware product like the recently widely rumored "HUD Google Glasses," which would offer the wearer a built-in head-up display: "A user can walk around with information popping up and into display Terminator-style based on preferences, location and Google's information," speculated 9to5Google.com.
We'll be attending Toy Fair 2012 next week. One preview meeting we've had was with Popar Toys: This company adds scannable markers to its paper books that webcams can read, which create 3D animations on a computer display that augment the book. We expect to see quite a bit more AR implementations in toys. Check back here to see what we find.
More reading on augmented reality:
What is Augmented Reality? [Pocket-Lint]
What is Augmented Reality (AR): Augmented Reality Defined, iPhone Augmented Reality Apps and Games and More [Digital Trends]
What Is That? Let Your Smartphone Have a Look [New York Times]