A Brief History of How Augmented Reality Evolved Over Time

Augmented Reality has come a long way from being a concept that could only be possible in Sci-fi to becoming a reality. From being only available to several people due to the complex design involving it to the recent developments that have made it possible to be available on even a smartphone, we have come a long way. 

The concept of Augmented reality circles around the idea of a real object that can be presented and enhanced into a digital model. From audio to video, augmented reality and its application span various industries and expertise. But how come this idea took its form? The earliest examples can be traced to the novel by Frank L Baum in 1901! Can you believe it? More than 100 years ago, an idea written as an imagination turned into reality.

The Foundation of Augmented Reality

To understand the current developments, we must go decades back and understand the importance of virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR). VR technology creates a fully immersive and simulated environment that can be experienced through devices such as headsets or gloves. At the same time, MR combines the elements of both the real and virtual worlds, creating a continuity that can range from real to virtual.

The idea of VR and MR can be traced back to the 19th century. Imagine inventors and artists experimenting with different techniques to create an illusion of reality, leading to stereoscopes, panoramas, or phantasmagoria developments. The origin of the term VR goes back to Jaron Lanier in 1987, and the term MR was given by the scientists Paul Milgram and Fumio Kishino in 1994.

The first attempts to create AR were based on VR and MR technologies. One of the earliest examples of AR was the Sensorama, a machine invented by Morton Heilig in 1957 that simulated a motorcycle ride with sights, sounds, smells, and vibrations. Another significant milestone in the early development was the head-mounted display (HMD) device, conceptualized and invented by Ivan Sutherland in 1968. It projected computer-generated images onto the user to give it a glimpse of an imaginary world.

These early experiments laid the foundation for AR but were limited by the technical challenges and costs of creating realistic and interactive AR experiences. Then the technological developments in the 21st century made it possible for designers and developers to work on it so that it can be accessible to everyone leading to its widespread use.

The Breakthrough in the 80s and 90s

Let’s dive into the vibrant era of the 80s and 90s, where augmented reality (AR) finally had a breakthrough as it was finally out of the lab, and experiments started to make it usable for different industries and other business applications.

Picture this: 1990, when Tom Caudell, a brilliant researcher at Boeing, gave birth to the term ‘augmented reality.’ Little did he know the impact those words would have on the world. Meanwhile, Louis Rosenburg was concocting something extraordinary across the vast expanse of the USAF Armstrong’s Research Lab. In 1992, he unveiled ‘Virtual Fixtures,’ one of the first fully functional AR systems. This groundbreaking creation allowed military personnel to virtually control and guide machinery, revolutionizing their training methods and enhancing safety practices for US Air Force pilots. It was a stepping stone towards a future where physical and digital objects mingle harmoniously, setting the stage for what we now call mixed reality.

But AR’s influence wasn’t confined to the military. In 1994, an intrepid writer and producer, Julie Martin, unveiled “Dancing in Cyberspace,” a mind-boggling theatre production that propelled augmented reality into the entertainment industry. Acrobats gracefully danced alongside ethereal virtual objects projected onto the physical stage, leaving audiences spellbound and questioning the boundaries of reality. Meanwhile, another AR breakthrough was taking place in the realm of sports. In 1998, Sportsvision shook up the world of American football by introducing the virtual 1st & Ten graphic system during a live NFL game. Remember that iconic yellow line marking the first down? Yep, that’s AR in action! Viewers were enthralled by this seemingly magical addition to their game-watching experience, unaware they were witnessing AR technology’s dawn infiltration of their living rooms.

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Even NASA got in on the AR action. In 1999, they created a hybrid synthetic vision system for their X-38 spacecraft. Harnessing the power of augmented reality, this innovative system displayed crucial map data on the pilot’s screen, providing unparalleled navigation assistance during test flights. It was a marriage of technology and exploration, propelling the boundaries of what was possible.

So, this is how the 80s and 90s shaped the development of Augmented reality. These milestones may have seemed small then, but they laid the groundwork for the remarkable advancements and widespread integration of AR that we witness today. Little did the world know that this captivating technology was just getting started, poised to redefine our perception of reality and reshape industries in ways we could only dream of.

Advancements in the 2000s

The 2000s probably is the most important period as it helped shape augmented reality the way it is today, from developments in the technology itself to software that can make it accessible to all.

It all started in 2000 when Hirokazu Kato pioneered the development of ARToolKit, an open-source software library that empowers developers to create AR applications. This revolutionary package utilized video tracking to seamlessly overlay virtual graphics onto the real world, opening doors to many creative possibilities. The world of sports also witnessed an AR revolution in 2003 when Sportvision elevated the iconic 1st & Ten graphics by integrating it into the new Skycam system. The viewers could now enjoy the game entirely differently, with scorecards and games overlaying on the field and the action-taking the viewing experience to new heights.

But AR didn’t stop there. In 2009, Esquire Magazine made a bold move by incorporating augmented reality into print media. With a simple scan of the magazine’s cover, readers found themselves face to face with Robert Downey Jr., who engaged them in captivating conversations, bringing the pages to life in previously unimaginable ways. Meanwhile, in the realm of web browsing, ARToolKit shattered boundaries by bringing augmented reality directly to web browsers in the same year, opening up a whole new dimension of interactive online experiences.

The impact of AR extended far beyond entertainment and media. In 2013, Volkswagen introduced the MARTA app (Mobile Augmented Reality Technical Assistance), revolutionizing repair and maintenance processes. This groundbreaking application provided technicians with step-by-step instructions, aligning and streamlining operations in various industries. In 2014, Google launched Google Glass; while it may not have been a commercial success, it showed the possibilities of how AR can be implemented in everyday objects around us. With natural language processing commands, users accessed many applications, including Google Maps, Gmail, and more, forever changing how we interacted with the digital realm.

Microsoft entered the AR arena in 2016 with its cutting-edge HoloLens. More advanced than Google Glass, this wearable device transformed users’ surroundings into a canvas for creating their own augmented reality experiences. Though not an everyday accessory due to its price tag, the HoloLens showcased the remarkable potential of wearable AR technology. The same year, the world witnessed a global phenomenon as Pokemon Go took the masses by storm, bringing augmented reality to the forefront of mainstream consciousness. Suddenly, everyday consumers were venturing into the real world, capturing virtual creatures and reshaping their perception of reality.

2017 marked a turning point for the retail industry when IKEA introduced its game-changing augmented reality app, IKEA Place. This innovative application allowed customers to virtually preview furniture and decor options in their homes before purchasing, revolutionizing how we shop for and envision our living spaces. As we bid farewell to the 2000s and venture into the present day, the augmented reality story unfolds. Its influence permeates our lives, transforming industries, enhancing experiences, and blurring the lines between the physical and the digital. In the 2020s, this development was only accelerated with the mass adoption of AR-based applications and experiences. The most recent example of such an adoption is Apple’s spatial computing glasses that utilize Augmented reality to work at their full potential. Metaverse and new-age business solutions have also taken it to design their platforms and make them more user-friendly and immersive.

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The Driving Force Behind This Development 

Augmented Reality in the present is on par with the imagination of thinkers and sci-fi imaginists of the 20th century, where we can project anything we want as a digital iteration of the real. Let us now see how the development is being driven today.

Hardware components 

The foundation lies in the hardware components, which serve as the building blocks of AR devices. These components work seamlessly together, from processors to displays, sensors to input devices. While smartphones embody many of these components, dedicated AR devices are explicitly designed for this purpose.

Displays 

Displays play a crucial role in AR, and various systems have emerged to bring virtual elements to life. Optical projection systems, head-mounted displays, eyeglasses, contact lenses, heads-up displays (HUD), virtual retinal displays, EyeTap, spatial augmented reality (SAR), and handheld displays are just a few examples of the diverse range of display technologies utilized in AR.

Sensors and input devices

Sensors and input devices are instrumental in capturing and interpreting real-world data. GPS, gyroscopes, accelerometers, compasses, RFID, wireless sensors, touch recognition, speech recognition, eye tracking, and peripherals enhance the interactivity and responsiveness of AR experiences.

Software 

However, the true magic of AR lies in the software that harnesses the hardware’s capabilities. Continued development in software is vital for pushing the boundaries of AR further. The Augmented Reality Markup Language (ARML) standardizes XML grammar for virtual reality, providing a foundation for interoperability. Various software development kits (SDKs) offer developers austere environments for creating AR applications.

AR has made its mark across diverse industries, with applications being explored in almost every sector. AR has proven its potential for revolutionizing processes and experiences from healthcare to education, manufacturing to retail. Whether it’s training simulations, virtual design prototypes, interactive marketing campaigns, or enhanced navigation systems, the possibilities are limited only by our imagination.

Future Possibilities

AR has applications in almost all industries, from entertainment to education, But what does the future hold for AR? What are the advances and impacts of this technology?

It may sound weird, but one area where significant development is expected is the hardware and software components to improve AR technology regarding precision, accuracy, and feel. Some features being developed or refined are spatial mapping, gesture recognition, and eye tracking. These features can enhance and improve the experience and usability of virtual experiences, making them more immersive and intuitive.

Another area where a significant impact is expected is the various domains and sectors where it can be applied. AR can offer many benefits and solutions for different fields and industries, such as healthcare, architecture, or tourism. For example, AR can help doctors with diagnosis or surgery, architects with design or simulation, or tourists with navigation or information. 

Conclusion

In this blog, we have explored and understood the history of AR and how it came to the position it is in today. We have seen how AR originated from the concepts of virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR) and how it developed from early experiments such as the Sensorama or the head-mounted display. We have also seen how AR became more accessible and widespread with the introduction of frameworks such as ARKit or ARCore, and apps such as Pokemon Go or Google Translate. 

But this is not the end of the AR journey. There are many exciting prospects and challenges for the future of AR. AR devices and software are expected to improve and offer more features, such as spatial mapping, gesture recognition, or eye tracking. AR applications are expected to expand and offer more benefits and solutions for different fields and industries. AR experiences are expected to become more immersive, interactive, and personalized. If you are considering adding AR to your workflow, a no-code platform could be the go-to option. You can start creating AR applications on the go with the intuitive interface of such a platform for free.

Johnny Thompson

Johnny Thompson is a senior reporter for Generator Research in Los Angeles, reporting on technology, business, finances, and more. He previously worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.

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