What Is Augmented Reality?

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Augmented Reality is the integration of digital information with the environment of the user in real time, where elements of the physical world are augmented using artificially generated sensory inputs, such as video, graphics, sound and GPS data.

Every once in a while, a new invention or path-breaking technology surfaces that takes the world by storm and changes the face of our lives forever. Its effects permeate almost every layer of society and entirely transforms the way we do the most basic things.

One of these game-changing inventions was computers, but the most recent revolution is Augmented Reality.

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Augmented Reality

augmented reality
Photo Credit: Dragonstock/Fotolia

The term ‘Augmented Reality’ is actually pretty straightforward to comprehend; it refers to a reality that has been augmented or enhanced through artificial means. In the most basic terms, Augmented Reality (often abbreviated as ‘AR’) is a direct view of the real, physical world around you with the help of simulated inputs; in other words, it replaces the real world with a simulated one.

When defined technically, Augmented Reality is the integration of digital information with the environment of the user in real time, where elements of the physical world are augmented using artificially generated sensory inputs, such as video, graphics, sound and GPS data.

fake real meme

AR is related to ‘mediated reality’, a much broader term that signifies the modification of physical reality (which could also be diminished, rather than augmented) using computers. Look at it this way; what you used to see on TV screens and computers a few years ago is now being pulled out of the screens and integrated into the real world. Essentially, those images are being made a part of the environment around you, swiftly blurring the fine line between what’s real and what you see, feel and perceive.

simulated world meme

The most basic and likely the most common example of AR implementation is when the scores of a live football, soccer or any other sporting match appear overlaid on an ongoing match on display screens. We’ll look at other, more sophisticated applications of AR in the subsequent sections.

Also Read: What’s The Difference Between Virtual Reality And Augmented Reality?

How Does It Work?

A technology as awe-inspiring as this one may lead you to believe that it works on only the most expensive, cutting-edge tools that are specifically made for the purpose. Although that’s true to some extent, it may not necessarily be true in every case. In fact, SixthSense, a wearable gestural interface designed by Pranav Mistry and Pattie Maes of MIT, makes use of some incredibly simple components to achieve AR. According to PranavMistry.com, it takes no more than $350 to make your own prototype of SixthSense using these basic components.

A lot of data capturing, transmission and processing (involving a whole host of software applications and algorithms) happens in the background to give you an ‘augmented’ view of the world around you, but let’s try to understand the basic idea of how AR technology works.

Since AR is too enormous an idea to be limited by a single, dedicated machine, it has various manifestations across different platforms. However, irrespective of the type of device or the area of application, AR requires these four basic hardware components: sensors, display, processor and input devices.

Sensors track information regarding the specific movements and gestures of the user and subsequently transmit it to the processor. Display forms an important part of the AR technology, as this is where the user interacts with the system and/or sees the output of all the ‘electronic hard-work’ that’s done by every other component.

Also Read: What Are Heads-Up Displays (HUD)? How Do They Work?

Applications Of Augmented Reality

Listing the applications of AR is akin to folding a piece of paper in half more than 6 times; it’s possible, but extremely difficult to accomplish. The applications of AR technology are practically boundless, and we’re only talking about what we know at this point in time. Still, let’s look at a few popular areas where AR is already, or soon will be doing, incredible things.


Learning can be made much more engaging for students with the integration of graphics, videos and audio in their real, physical environment. Textbooks can contain special markers on select pages that, when scanned by an AR-enabled device, could play a multimedia file. Students could actually see and interact with life-sized digital skeletons to better understand human anatomy and countless other things.


AR could give an unprecedented boost to the healthcare sector by improving its digital infrastructure from the ground up. In fact, AR has been present in the medical sector for many years in various manifestations. During an operation, AR can provide surgeons with vital information about internal organs that are otherwise hidden or not being operated on at the time. It can also provide an instant visual X-ray of the patient and triangulate the exact position of a tumor with ease.


AR can definitely be used to enhance product previews; at shopping malls, for example, you could actually see what’s inside a package without having to open it. It can also help you select from a multitude of products by displaying product descriptions outside the product. AR can be be a huge help to architects to help visualize underground structures, networks of cables and pipes, and geo-referenced models, just by using their smartphones.

Other Applications

iron man augmented reality
How do you think Mr Stark can see it all through his helmet?

Search and rescue operations could be made relatively simpler and much more effective with AR, as rescue teams could locate victims and stranded people more swiftly than present technology allows. The application of AR for militaristic purposes also has many advantages, such as innumerable simulations that can train and acclimatize soldiers to unknown terrestrial and climactic conditions. Video games will continue to become much more immersive, as the player would become a part of the game, as opposed to being someone seeing it all from a third-person perspective.

Google Glass also integrates AR in its design

These are only some of the well-known applications of AR; as happens with every technology, only time will tell how it’s going to transform and make itself relevant in even the most unexpected areas in the coming years. Still, I reckon that the day is not too far away when you might meet someone for the first time and instead of saying ‘Hello’, ask them:

How well do you understand the article above!

Can you answer a few questions based on the article you just read?

References (click to expand)
  1. Augmented reality - Wikipedia. Wikipedia
  2. How Augmented Reality Works - Computer | HowStuffWorks. HowStuffWorks
  3. R. Silva, J. C. Oliveira, G. A. Giraldi - Introduction To Augmented Reality - CiteSeerX
  4. How Augmented Reality Works. Augment
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About the Author

Ashish is a Science graduate (Bachelor of Science) from Punjabi University (India). He spearheads the content and editorial wing of ScienceABC and manages its official Youtube channel. He’s a Harry Potter fan and tries, in vain, to use spells and charms (Accio! [insert object name]) in real life to get things done. He totally gets why JRR Tolkien would create, from scratch, a language spoken by elves, and tries to bring the same passion in everything he does. A big admirer of Richard Feynman and Nikola Tesla, he obsesses over how thoroughly science dictates every aspect of life… in this universe, at least.