Augmented Reality 101: what is AR and how it works


The tech giants are heavily betting on augmented reality. A few years back, Apple brought attention to this technology by launching ARKit, an AR software development kit for iOS. Following in their footsteps, Google soon released ARCore, an AR SDK for Android. Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon have also jumped on the bandwagon.

Starting from the basics

Simply put, augmented reality is computer-generated elements (graphics, 3D animations, videos, etc.) digitally layered on top of a user’s view of the real world. Currently, AR can be experienced through smart glasses, tablets, and smartphones.

To get a better grasp of the concept, think about the protagonists of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the “Terminator” movie, Robert Downey Jr. in “Iron Man”, or Ryan Reynolds in “Free Guy”. All characters have their vision of the physical world enhanced with resourceful superimposed instant digital data – also known as AR.

Now, let’s move from the Hollywood-style examples to the nitty-gritty of augmented reality. We’ll begin with the types of augmented reality technology that are actually available today.

Augmented reality features

Be not mistaken; not all AR experiences are alike. Some are triggered by flat images, others by three-dimensional objects. Some require Geo-location based data to prompt the AR content, while others allow you to spontaneously augment the world around. It all depends on what the developer wants to achieve. Let’s take a quick look at some of the most common types of AR technologies in use today:

Geo-location AR

This feature triggers the AR experience by a predefined location or by the user’s position. Users can visualize and interact with AR content that has been placed in specific locations worldwide. The usage varies from restaurant reviews left by customers all the way to Pokémon hunting journeys. Speaking of this AR craze, check this awesome tutorial to learn how to create your own Pokémon Go-like app.

Fun fact: AR technology started with location-based experiences and, almost a decade ago, Wikitude was the company that launched the very first location-based AR app.

Image Recognition and Tracking

The AR experience is triggered by a targeted image (or multiple targeted images). Users scan predetermined recognizable images to view and interact with AR content. It works with a single image as well as with multiple images. Once the target image is recognized, users can move their device around the subject and continue viewing the AR content. Multiple targets can also interact with one another (and it’s frankly very impressive!).

Nowadays, this technology is widely used in marketing and e-commerce. The use cases vary from AR enriched catalogs, board games, museum guides, and more. We have a complete guide to the best practices and target guidelines to make it easy for you to start.

Object Recognition and Tracking

The AR experience is triggered by various objects, that can be completely different in shapes, sizes, and textures. Object tracking allows users to scan previously mapped real-world objects (e.g. toys, sculptures, architectural models, product packaging, industrial machines) in order to view and interact with AR content in a 360-degree manner.

This ever-evolving technology has been proving its usefulness in product modeling, design, assembly, and other areas. You can dig deeper into object tracking use cases and step-by-step instructions here.

Instant tracking (also known as positional tracking)

Instant tracking is an algorithm that, contrary to those previously introduced, does not aim to recognize a predefined target. Instead, it immediately starts tracking in an arbitrary environment. The core of this feature lies in SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping), a technology that makes it possible to instantly create a map of what is in the camera view and to understand where the device is relative to the world around it.

It is most commonly used in client engagement campaigns to promote products. We also see more home decor apps picking it, allowing users to place virtual furniture in their home environment before the actual purchase. You can learn all about instant tracking use cases and how to get started here.

Which AR engine to choose?

Your choice of AR engine will most likely be determined by budget, AR features needs, system integration requirements, and preferred development platform. Despite the variety of features in use today, Google ARCore and Apple ARKit’s most substantial focus is on markerless AR technology. Any apps created through their SDK can also only be deployed on their respective platforms (either Android or iOS).

More posts from the AR 101 series:

This first part of Wikitude’s Augmented Reality 101 series tackled the basics. After explaining what AR is and going through the most common types of AR technologies, we will next explore how augmented reality is being used in the world nowadays.

To cut straight to the chase and get some hands-on action, download our powerful award-winning SDK today to put it to the test!

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