We have all heard of Augmented Reality. But what does it really mean? And how will it impact our lives in the future? We consider the impact on education, health and sport.

By Mark Richards

In the article about the future of your phone last week I wrote, Your phone will shift reality. It will not be able to do anything about the fact that your football team have lost 4-0, but your phone will be able to show you exactly how that new desk would look in your office, or how you would look wearing that new shirt you have just photographed.

How will it do that? The answer is augmented reality (AR) and – like artificial intelligence and robotics – it is something that has the potential to change our world. So it seems only right to look at AR in more detail. What is it? And what changes will it bring?

What is AR?

Simply put – if any technological advances can ever be simply put – it is objects in the real word being “augmented” by computer-generated information that alters your experience and perception. This can be visual, auditory, haptic (relating to your sense of touch), olfactory (smell) or somatosensory (which is a feeling that can occur anywhere in the body, such as warmth or pressure, as opposed to one located at a sense organ).

AR can be either constructive – adding to the natural environment – or destructive, where it masks some of the natural environment and is seamlessly interwoven with the natural world, altering the user’s perception so that a virtual reality takes over from the actual reality. So AR brings the digital world into someone’s perception of the real world, doing so not simply through data, but by information which – for the user – alters the natural environment he is in.

A little bit of history

The term was first coined by a Boeing researcher, Thomas Caudell, in 1990, who used it to describe the head-mounted displays used by electricians working on complicated wiring. The first practical applications were seen at the US Air Force’s Armstrong Laboratory in the early 90s, with the first commercial applications appearing in entertainment and gaming.

Like AI and robotics, AR has the potential for massive change across a wide variety of sectors. It is impossible to cover them all in the space available this morning, so let us look at just three – education, medicine and sport.

How AR will change education

Clearly, the applications in educations are enormous: even Geography might become interesting again… Students will be able to go inside a volcano, swim with sharks and explore the human body as AR gives them far more interaction with a subject – and thereby, more motivation to study it.

Nothing illustrates this more than the AR game, Pokémon Go – released to mixed reviews in 2016 but which has gone on to become a huge hit (especially for Taiwanese cycling folk-hero ‘Uncle Pokémon’).

Pokémon Go had an estimated 15m downloads in its first week and at one point was estimated to be making $1.6m (£1.22m) per day – alerting educators to how AR can help students improve their social learning, explore surroundings, extend social skills and boost problem-solving.

Looking ahead AR is going to take learning out of the classroom and make lessons from any teacher available to any student. I remember my eldest son teaching himself some Maths from the Khan Academy: to do that, he had to log into his computer. In the future simply scanning a page in say, Harry Potter, could reveal JK Rowling telling students how she wrote that scene.

Augmented Reality. Seeing a Different Future…

AR and health and medicine

Clearly, AR has enormous implications for medicine and health, both for treatment and teaching, as medical students – like school students – will be able to watch operations performed in real time. Perhaps the most interesting applications, though, are in self-treatment, as patients are encouraged to monitor and treat their own health as they deal with conditions such as post-stroke rehabilitation, eating disorders and chronic pain.

There are already AR apps which combine gaming and entertainment to promote cardiovascular activity – what better way to spend the weekend than playing Zombies, Run!?

More seriously, a UK start-up called Immersive Rehab is using a combination of neuro and physical rehabilitation in a 3D world, allowing patients to interact with objects in a way they cannot do in the physical world, so they can exercise motor functions. The technology is still new and the benefits as yet are anecdotal – but self-treatment is going to play a big part in the future of your health. Assuming you can outrun the zombies…

AR and sports

The English Premier League season starts tonight and there is one absolute certainty. Come Saturday fans will be discussing the games and saying, “How did he miss that. I could have scored standing on one leg.” (Or words to that effect…)

Well, AR will give them the chance to find out – just as it will give players the chance to learn and improve. Probably more advances are currently being made in American football than in any other sport, both for players and broadcasters. But ultimately AR will be available and will impact all sports – so fans will be able to try and score the chance that Eden Hazard missed, and players will be able to replay actual events from games ‘for real.’

Chris Kluwe of the Minnesota Vikings, who gave a TED talk on the subject says,

“On the field, everything is chaos. We have little sense of what is going on. VR and AR can help fans understand why the player didn’t make the play, as if we were in his shoes.”

I cannot wait. I used to be a reasonable cricketer when I was younger. But you know how it is, the years take their toll. But AR could help me turn back the clock. So that is it for this week. I have the bat in my hand and my AR helmet on my head. Shane Warne is coming on to bowl – and I need ten to win…