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AR – a technology for the present or the future?

AR – a technology for the present or the future?

Science fiction has presented us with various concepts for augmented reality (AR) for a number of years. Even movies like Star Wars and The Matrix gave us insights about how it could happen. The reality is that augmented reality has come a long way since it was idealised in science fiction books and movies. There was even a highly successful mobile phone game in 2016 which relied very much on AR technology.

What is augmented reality?

Augmented reality is a view of the physical world in which elements are enhanced by computer-generated input. These inputs may vary from audio to video, to graphics, GPS overlays and more.

The past

The first concept of augmented reality was described in a novel written in 1901 where a set of electronic glasses mapped data onto people to build a character model of the persons in question. Augmented reality was, in a sense, first achieved by Morton Heilig in 1957. The Sensorama delivered visuals, sounds, vibration and smell to the viewer. This of course was not computer controlled but it was the first example of an attempt at adding additional data to a viewing experience.

The Sensorama is one of the first attempts at augmented reality




In 1968, a head-mounted display was invented by Ivan Sutherland as a kind of window into a virtual world. At the time, this technology was so expensive that it was impractical for mass use, but the same concept is widely used today.

In 1975, Matrix-style virtual reality interfaces were invented that allowed users to manipulate and interact with virtual objects and to do so in real-time.

Of course, back then the words “augmented reality” and “virtual reality” weren’t even coined yet. The first properly functioning AR system was developed at USAF Armstrong Research Lab in 1992. This was an incredibly complex robotic system called Virtual Fixtures which was designed to compensate for the lack of high speed 3D graphics power in the early 90s. It enabled the overlay of sensory information on a workspace to improve human productivity.

The present

In the last 20 years, AR has really taken off and many breakthroughs have taken place during this time. ARQuake, an outdoor mobile AR game was developed in 2000. ARToolkit was made available in Adobe Flash in 2009. Google announced the Google Glass project in 2013, and Microsoft announced AR support with their augmented reality headset HoloLens in 2015.



Today, AR is mainly achieved through a variety of technological innovations:


General hardware components – the processor, the display, the sensors and input devices. Typically, a smartphone contains a processor, a display, accelerometers, GPS, camera, microphone etc. and contains all the hardware required to be an AR device.

Displays – while a monitor is perfectly capable of displaying AR data, there are other systems in use such as optical projection systems, head-mounted displays, eyeglasses, contact lenses, the HUD (heads up display), virtual retinal displays, and handheld displays.

Sensors and input devices – GPS, gyroscopes, accelerometers, compasses, RFID, wireless sensors, touch recognition, speech recognition, eye tracking and peripherals.

Software - Most of the development for AR will be in developing further software to take advantage of the hardware capabilities. There is already an Augmented Reality Markup Language (ARML) which is being used to standardize XML grammar for virtual reality. There are several software development kits (SDK) which also offer simple environments for AR development.

Nowadays, there are apps available or being researched for AR in nearly every industry sector


The future

Mobile phones are already such an integral part of our lives that they might as well be extensions of our own bodies. Yet technology can be further integrated into our lives without it being so intrusive. AR provides opportunities to enhance user experiences.

In fact, Apple have this year stated that AR is “as big an idea as the smartphone”. It is no secret that Apple have, throughout the years, taken ideas that were becoming relevant and successful and pushed market boundaries to make them much better. Examples are the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. Hearing such statements from Apple means that Apple will be one of the most important companies to join the likes of Google and Microsoft to make AR more affordable and in the end, indispensable. One remembers a time when only ‘geeks’ used a smartphone and were laughed at for doing so. Nowadays, it seems that nobody can survive without one. So, if Apple does take AR as seriously as they stated earlier this year, wearing AR devices may become as normal as chatting on your smartphone over dinner, in the bathroom, and everywhere else by 2030.

In the future, we will also see major advances in IoT (Internet of Things), and AR will certainly improve traditional experiences. Through AR dashboards, for example, virtual gauges can assist line operators with maintenance by displaying the real-time temperature of an IoT-connected engine or serving up contextual instructions for how to disassemble a piece of machinery.

At the very least, an average user will have improved task efficiency or improved quality of experience through AR in the very near future.

Vincent Farrugia is a Technology and Security Manager at Deloitte Malta. For more information, please visit