AR is almost hotter than VR these days. It’s already more accessible than VR through many very popular smartphone apps like Snapchat. With giants like Apple entering the space, it’s clear that it is a big deal and has a ton of potential. But how is it different from VR, and what can it be used for?

The fundamental difference between virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) is all in the name. VR completely obscures your vision and takes you somewhere totally different, while AR is an overlay on the world you normally see.

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Accessibility is also a major differentiator. AR in many cases does not require a headset. In most uses, you’re looking through your phone at the real world, with the additional visual layer displayed on your screen. More advanced AR systems are headsets with transparent visors that allow you to see through to the real world, but with the rendered overlaid visuals. Google Glass was the biggest example of this.

Many people are already using AR apps. Snapchat (and Holo) is the best example. When it puts filters over people’s faces that react to their movements, that’s AR. The famous dancing hot dog is also AR. Pokemon GO is another mainstream example. This technology is already in many people’s pockets, and will be even more so thanks to Apple’s ARKit, announced and released to developers just a few weeks ago.

Apple ARKit is basically a tool for developers to create new AR applications and features on iPhones and iPads. It’s a big deal because when fully released, most iPhones will have native AR functionality. This means all sorts of applications for AR open up to millions of people, with stuff like this from Within just being the start:

There are already very innovative uses of ARKit being shared, such as generating inside-out tracking for a Google Cardboard headset using the software (it’s a bit technical but trust me that is a bigdeal).

Currently, the most common use of AR (besides Snapchat) is likely in-store activations. It’s also probably the lamest. It requires someone using a specific app when in a retail location to ‘scan’ something to see an animation, additional information or both. The app basically uses your phone’s camera to ‘see’ a certain combination of objects or text in front of it that is has been programmed to recognize, then display the AR overlay in response.

There are many variations on this that aren’t retail-specific, like with historical sites, in magazines and for children’s entertainment. This will likely go the way of QR codes that were all the rage until retailers realized no one likes having a dedicated app just for scanning barcodes to get information that could be in a printed sign.

Other, newer implementations like Estee Lauder’s AR-enabled chatbot allow in-store experiences, like trying on new lipstick, to happen at home. As the technology advances in step with other new kinds of software (in this case, face recognition and chatbot AI) we will be sure to see more useful implementations of AR beyond dog faces and dancing hot dogs.

AR is still in the early phases of trial and error, but it is here to stay. The ability to insert characters into our environment or have contextual information appear in certain situations is just too popular, and these are just the most basic uses of the technology. Even Google Glass is back for a second round, but thankfully not as a fashion accessory.

As always, feel free to reach out and ask me any questions you may have!

-Nestor