IT’S THE REAL DEAL: Augmented Reality Has Just Begun to Leave Its Mark

TBy Ryan O’Connor ’19

Tarmac’s Science and Tech Editor, Ryan O’Connor is an avid software developer whose work earned him an invitation to Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in San José, California this past June. Ryan’s latest project, a new-and- improved “Chaminade High School” mobile application, is currently available to the public via the Apple App Store.

It’s not too often that an essential new technology emerges – one that changes our work, entertainment, and daily routines. Such notable technological breakthroughs in recent years include the evolution of portable computers, the development of social media, and, of course, the explosion of smartphones. But with all of these innovations well-ingrained in our society by now, one must begin to wonder – what’s next?

Here’s my bet.

Augmented reality, or AR, is a technology that seamlessly blends virtual objects with the real world. While this technology has been around for a few years, it is becoming increasingly practical and important.

You may have heard of another emerging technology called virtual reality (VR). The two “realities” can seem similar at a first glance; both change what we see using virtual scenes, after all. But, looking deeper, differences quickly become apparent. VR completely removes users from the real world, immersing them in a whole new environment through a headset and controllers. Such technology is certainly interesting; however, its limitations make AR the more practical and accessible technology to the average user.

VR requires very powerful computers and other equipment, adding up to a high cost.  AR, however, is already being used on the portable devices that we use every day. Although augmented reality doesn’t give users a 360-degree experience, it places virtual objects in the real world, which users can then see on their device’s screen.

AR certainly has taken some time to reach the level of precision it currently enjoys. The technology relies on a device’s accelerometer (which detects movements), gyroscope (which detects how the device turns), and cameras. In 2017, all of these instruments are already part of your smartphone!

Fusing all of these technologies together produces amazing scenes, blending animations with real objects right in front of users. Developers are already coming up with countless applications for AR, ranging from new ways to game to a virtual tape measure on the iPhone. Chances are you’ll soon find yourself using AR in one way or another – if you haven’t already, that is.

An entire category of video games has come from AR. One of the earliest and most successful examples is Pokémon Go. Although this game’s release brought with it some unintended controversy over safety issues, the app, released in the U.S. in July of 2016, demonstrated the capabilities of AR well before big tech companies such as Apple and Google released frameworks for it. Sure, Pokémon Go’s developers might have made some significant oversights regarding where the game would bring users, but its popularity and functionality cannot be denied. Much of its complex technology went unnoticed by most players, but the app combined a user’s location and augmented reality to place Pokémon models in the real world. Players interacted with these characters on their mobile devices as they walked around public places.

Pokémon Go’s accurate object anchoring and placement was certainly impressive, and it has paved the way for many more projects. (Don’t worry, though; not all of these AR games involve running around the streets with your phone in front of you, as Pokémon Go did!) Some of the best products thus far have been made with Apple’s ARKit, a framework which allows developers to easily create AR apps, focusing less on the technicalities and more on the experience and content. With AR, users control a character’s point of view as the user physically moves his or her device around. Thus, a game’s scene can easily be laid out on a table or similar flat surface.

If games aren’t for you, there are other stunning uses for AR from which almost anyone can benefit. For instance, I experimented with making a virtual tape measure this summer. Playing with Apple’s ARKit framework made me realize firsthand the great deal of possibilities that await. Just a few lines of code were needed to initialize the AR scene, and it only took a few math calculations to generate an accurate measurement.

Following this, I was invited to beta test MeasureKit, an ARKit app decorated with intelligent features that essentially did what I wanted to, but on a higher level. With this, one can simply measure the width of a table or the height of a refrigerator as I described previously. The developers of MeasureKit went even further and incorporated an intelligent mode that detects the person’s head and almost instantly displays his or her height. Give this a try for yourself and download MeasureKit on the App Store. You’ll be blown away.

We’re about to see software even more impressive than that, though. IKEA has developed an app that lets you skip a visit to the furniture store, allowing users to preview life-size models from their catalog right in your home. Other developers are already working on apps that can generate floor plans of a room – simply tapping on the corners around the room generates wall measurements, square footage, and a visual representation of the room. Because of ideas like these, big-time companies know that AR isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, Apple recently announced that it will be releasing an AR-specific device by 2020.

And it doesn’t stop there. Imagine going to a restaurant, and instead of receiving a menu, you open an app that allows you to preview your food before ordering it. Imagine a heads-up display for walking and driving directions that guides you to your destination through your camera.

Paired with other up-and-coming innovations, AR is bound to redefine how we interact with our devices on a daily basis.