What Is Augmented Reality?

Augmented reality (AR) is an enhanced version of the real physical world that is achieved through the use of digital visual elements, sound, or other sensory stimuli delivered via technology. It is a growing trend among companies involved in mobile computing and business applications in particular.

Amid the rise of data collection and analysis, one of augmented reality’s primary goals is to highlight specific features of the physical world, increase understanding of those features, and derive smart and accessible insight that can be applied to real-world applications. Such big data can help inform companies' decision-making and gain insight into consumer spending habits, among others. 

Key Takeaways

  • Augmented reality (AR) involves overlaying visual, auditory, or other sensory information onto the world in order to enhance one's experience.
  • Retailers and other companies can use augmented reality to promote products or services, launch novel marketing campaigns, and collect unique user data.
  • Unlike virtual reality, which creates its own cyber environment, augmented reality adds to the existing world as it is.

Understanding Augmented Reality

Augmented reality continues to develop and become more pervasive among a wide range of applications. Since its conception, marketers and technology firms have had to battle the perception that augmented reality is little more than a marketing tool. However, there is evidence that consumers are beginning to derive tangible benefits from this functionality and expect it as part of their purchasing process.

For example, some early adopters in the retail sector have developed technologies that are designed to enhance the consumer shopping experience. By incorporating augmented reality into catalog apps, stores let consumers visualize how different products would look like in different environments. For furniture, shoppers point the camera at the appropriate room and the product appears in the foreground.

Elsewhere, augmented reality’s benefits could extend to the health care sector, where it could play a much bigger role. One way would be through apps that enable users to see highly detailed, 3-D images of different body systems when they hover their mobile device over a target image. For example, augmented reality could be a powerful learning tool for medical professionals throughout their training.

Some pundits have long-speculated that wearable devices could be a breakthrough for augmented reality. Whereas smartphones and tablets show a tiny portion of the user’s landscape, smart eye-wear, for example, may provide a more complete nexus between real and virtual realms if it develops enough to become mainstream.

Augmented Reality vs. Virtual Reality

Augmented reality uses the existing real-world environment and puts virtual information on top of it to enhance the experience.

In contrast, virtual reality immerses users, allowing them to "inhabit" an entirely different environment altogether, notably a virtual one created and rendered by computers. Users may be immersed in an animated scene or an actual location that has been photographed and embedded in a virtual reality app. Through a virtual reality viewer, users can look up, down, or any which way, as if they were actually there.