What is AR? Augmented reality explained.

Augmented reality (AR) is increasingly becoming a common part of daily life. It has for some time been a fixture of certain sci-fi films — such as the Terminator series and Minority Report — to show a constant flow of information appearing in a headset display or on a holographic terminal. Yet these early and somewhat fanciful, depictions of AR are now giving way to actual day-to-day augmented reality use cases. 


IKEA creates many of its catalogue images via virtual photography; now customers can use these images as the basis of an AR experience, viewing the 3D images in the real-world environment around them to get the look and feel of, say, how a piece of furniture might fit in. A wide range of products available on Amazon can now be viewed in AR in this way, as well. And AR uses are not limited to retail opportunities; journalists and news organisations, including The New York Times, are using AR to present news stories with greater depth and impact. AR has successfully been used in the classroom, for medical education and even for military training.


The uses of this remarkable technology are plentiful. Hollywood science fiction has been superseded by actual science fact.


But the amazing AR experiences being created today only scratch the surface of what the medium is capable of. AR applications understand the world around the device, augmenting the physical world with digital text, images, objects and sounds. The best AR experiences create a seamless blending of digital information with interactive, connected, multimedia content and the rich depth of the physical world.


“AR is the way technology will seamlessly blend in every aspect of our lives to help us to achieve our goals,” says Stefano Corazza, fellow and head of AR at Adobe. 


What is AR?

Augmented reality layers additional content onto the real world in front of you. AR provides digital content that supplements what’s before your eyes and that you see either through special AR glasses or the camera on your phone, tablet or other device.

AR vs. VR: What's the difference? 

AR is sometimes confused with its cousin, virtual reality (VR). Here are the differences between virtual and augmented reality: 


  • World: AR is a digital experience built upon the physical world, whereas VR is entirely virtual. With VR, you leave reality behind and enter a self-contained world constructed either from photographic images or a computer generated (CGI) world or both at once.
  • Hardware:  Many AR apps require only smartphones and tablets to experience their additional content. Unlike VR headsets, which block out the real world, AR headsets and smart glasses feature transparent lenses like eyeglasses, which allow them to layer digital content on the physical environment around you.

Uses of AR today.

AR technology has massive commercial potential in a wide range of industries — from opening up new marketing channels to improving employee training processes. 


AR has broad applications in the entertainment industry, including both cinema and gaming. Pokémon GO (2016) is perhaps the best known example of an AR app that went viral, when millions of people around the world became engaged in a magical world populated with cartoon characters.


“Pokémon GO illustrates how even a little bit of blending between the physical and digital world can have a big impact,” says Daniel Plemmons, AR design manager at Adobe. “By using the world map and GPS to place Pokémon in places meaningful to players, the game succeeds at giving those digital characters a far richer context. That personal context, paired with the massively popular narrative world of Pokémon, was a magic combination. Add on to that even Pokémon GO’s rudimentary AR visual effects and you have an experience that enthralled millions of people.”


AR also offers the possibility of travelling back in time. Put on a pair of AR glasses and, with the use of CGI enhancements, your walk through, say, the Roman Forum can capture how it would have looked at its height, 2,000 years earlier. 


AR apps can also blend entertainment and education. Google Lens, for example, can provide information on the plant you are curious about that you see on a nature walk or detail some of the history of a building you pass on an urban stroll. It can function almost like Siri, although rather than having to ask it for information, you can simply turn your gaze or lens toward the object or place you are curious about. 

AR devices and apps can identify not only plant species but also products. With AR, every item that has been sold becomes a walking advertisement when a potential customer can use their AR glasses or smartphone camera to identify who produces the item and where they can buy it. 


credit: Image by Vladimir Petkovic.

AR-driven virtual fittings allow customers to try on a garment to see how it looks on them. Customers can try on shoes via an AR experience on their iPhone, for example. AR apps also increase the potential for engagement with customers, perhaps suggesting that if a green pullover doesn’t look good then they may want to try the blue one instead. 

AR offers the opportunity to walk through rooms and decide whether you will truly be happy with a new layout and to evaluate digital designs in the real world. If you want to see how that sectional couch would look in your sitting room but the furniture showroom isn’t interested in lending it out for a few hours, AR provides an easy solution. For architects and contractors, AR can be used to allow clients to walk through a planned addition and see how it will change the look of their house before designs are finalised. 


AR can also be used to create an enhanced version of employee training in real time. Many of us have struggled with manuals for kitchen appliances — the challenges can be that much greater when it comes to learning how to operate a machine on an assembly line. AR can make training more engaging and clearer. Instead of trying to figure out if you are holding a device correctly by deciphering corresponding drawings in a manual, an AR-enabled virtual tutor can politely inform you that you need to turn it in a different direction. 

Exploring AR with Adobe Aero.

For designers who are interested in exploring the potential of AR, Adobe Aero is a free authoring application available on desktop (beta) and mobile (iOS only) that empowers creators to build interactive AR experiences in an intuitive way, no coding skills required. 

Exploring AR with Adobe Aero