The history of augmented reality (AR) is longer than you might realise. Indeed, while the term “augmented reality” was only coined in the early 90s by Boeing employees Thomas Caudell and David Mizell, we can retrospectively apply the moniker to a long list of technologies that existed before that date.
What is Augmented Reality?
Before we delve into that history, it’s necessary to define exactly what augmented reality is and isn’t. Simply put, augmented reality refers to any technology which affords users the ability to simultaneously interact with both real and virtual elements within an environment – unlike virtual reality, which consists of entirely virtual elements.
In its modern incarnation, AR is mainly provided in two different formats. The first are headsets or head-mounted displays (HMDs) which combine functionality such as environmental mapping, image projection, eye-tracking, and remote collaboration. A more accessible form is via the ubiquitous smartphone, which can use the many sensors contained within, as well as the camera, to enrich images with virtual additions. It’s this approach that drives some of the more mainstream successes AR has had such as video filters that change your appearance in real-time or games such as Pokemon Go. With that definition in our mind, let’s take a closer look at the earliest days of the technology.
The Dawn of AR
While a full and exhaustive history of augmented reality technology would be a monumental undertaking, there are certainly a few high points that are useful in demonstrating how augmented reality reached the level of development it enjoys today.
The advent of AR technology is often attributed to the Sensorama from 1962, which accompanied a 3D film with smells and wind directed at the viewer. AR went portable with heads-up and head-mounted displays such as the Electrocular, developed by the Hughes Aircraft Company, also in 1962, which gave pilots access to information via a TV signal reflected onto an eyepiece. A report at the time considered potential future uses of the technology, saying: “It will also help surgeons to go about their work even while they are watching instruments reporting the second-to-second condition of the patient’s heart and other vital organs.”
1968 saw the creation of one of the first head-mounted displays by computer scientist Ivan Sutherland and others – a crucial step toward the headsets commonly used for augmented and virtual reality today. Unlike the wireless or at least ergonomic headsets, we’re used to, this early example lived up to its nickname of the “Sword of Damocles” as its weight required it to be suspended from the ceiling. Despite this, it enabled users to enter virtual rooms with very early wireframe computer graphics.
In stark contrast to that rather cumbersome technology was Myron Krueger’s Videoplace, an AR laboratory project instituted in the mid-70s. That project pioneered computer vision and interaction techniques that would later be replicated in the likes of Microsoft’s Kinect. Move on to the 80s, and we see the creation of a wearable computer vision system in the form of the EyeTap, which was capable of overlaying text and graphics on a view of the real world.
In the 90s, the personal computing revolution and the improved computing power on offer led to many advancements for industrial and military purposes, culminating in projects such as the US Naval Research Laboratory’s Battlefield Augmented Reality System (BARS) system, which was involved in prototyping early wearable systems for on-foot combatants.
AR’s Recent History
In the 2000s picking up the mantle of AR innovation were less controversial sectors. Indeed, in recent times we’ve become consumers of augmented reality in forms we might not even realise, such as the Hawk-Eye computer vision system for sports, first implemented for Cricket in 2001. The system works via computer vision, using cameras to precisely triangulate the location of a ball, for instance, to check whether it has crossed the goal line in Football. That digital projection can then be overlaid on real images to determine whether an event has occurred.
In sports more recently, we’ve seen the emergence of virtual replacement technology capable of the real-time replacement of real, physical ads with virtual copies, so that broadcasters of matches can display advertisements more in line with their audience. It works via non-visible light signals which are used to precisely locate where virtual advertisements should appear. That means they can seamlessly disappear when players walk in front of them – all while still allowing those in-person to see a physical advertisement rather than a green screen.
The advertising sector was also pioneering AR during this period, such as a campaign from BMW in 2008 which turned a printed magazine ad into a stage for a model car when held in front of a webcam, while also including controls allowing the user to control the car. That and similar efforts led to a boom in augmented reality advertising that continues to this day. Retail, too, embraced AR in the 2010s, with the capacity to virtually try-on goods such as makeup by utilising motion capture and smartphone cameras.
The technology’s recent history has also witnessed mixed attempts by companies to drive consumer adoption of augmented reality, particularly in the gaming space. One only needs to look at the likes of 2003’s EyeToy, which creator PlayStation explicitly described as its “first foray into augmented reality”. Meanwhile, competitor Microsoft’s Kinect line of motion sensing input devices was launched in 2010, lasting a couple of generations before dying out.
Where AR Stands Today
This brings us to the modern-day, where augmented reality finds itself in a mixed place. While there have been a few blockbuster hits for AR such as Pokemon Go, it’s in the business world where the technology is really finding its feet. The aforementioned Kinect was resurrected in 2020 as the Azure Kinect, for use with the company’s Microsoft Azure cloud computing platform, while other parts of the technology were integrated into what is undoubtedly the big daddy of the augmented reality headset world: the Microsoft HoloLens.
The AR sector has seen a fair amount of buzz in just the past few weeks. Game publisher Square Enix announced that it would be partnering with Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon Spaces XR Developer Platform to develop AR titles, potentially drawing its extensive catalogue of properties including the likes of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and Kingdom Hearts, for instance. We also saw the Houzz Pro app add new augmented reality features enabling contractors to turn 2D floor plans into 3D client walkthroughs, while Quantum Storey’s immersive XR storytelling platform announced a new collaboration with Hasbro.
To find out more about the augmented reality state of play, take a look at our series on AR in industry, starting with healthcare.