• AR
  • Augmented Reality
  • Fashion
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  • Retail

Augmented Reality: What It Is and How It Works

Victor Malitsky
3 Nov 2020
9 min
Augmented Reality: What It Is and How It Works

If you’ve seen Blade Runner 2049, you must remember K’s holographic lady friend, Joi – and how incredibly believable and helpful she was. We don’t know whether Joi was running on the last iteration of iOS or Android, but she sure was built with some of the latest augmented reality technology available in that fictional world.

While today’s AR isn’t yet as realistic and omnipresent as in that film, it has earned its place in the sun. Augmented reality is here to assist us when we walk, drive, learn, educate, and even help doctors save our lives. And in case you’ve always wanted to walk on a tiger standing in your living room, AR will give you a dry run – without breaking a single law.

Let’s answer the question: How does augmented reality work and why it’s the future?

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    Augmented reality & how it works

    Augmented reality technology is a kind of high-tech magic that adds layers of digital content to the world we see with our naked eye. To view this enhanced reality and interact with it, you either need dedicated eyewear or a screen of your phone, tablet, or computer. The device’s camera creates the base layer of reality, while special software generates the overlay of text, images, labels, or 3D models. Input from additional sensors, as well as a data connection, is required to blend the two worlds and trick our minds into believing the illusion. The idea is to align the digital objects with real surroundings, so the result can be beneficial or entertaining to the user.

    To better explain how augmented reality works, we’d like to start with the hardware that actually makes the magic possible.

    AR hardware – what’s inside?

    As with any modern high-tech wizardry, you need to mix many hardware components in the cauldron before the brew acquires its powers. When it comes to augmented reality devices, these usually include:

    • a camera (or cameras) – to capture the visual image of the real world
    • sensors – GPS, gyroscopes, accelerometers, magnetometers, and infrared Time-Of-Flight sensors can be used to help identify the device’s position in space and distance to/from objects or the user
    • data connectivity – most likely a wi-fi or a cellular connection to deliver data in real time
    • processing power – a CPU and/or a GPU, memory, and other components that can crunch numbers and handle the data
    • software – to interpret this information and create the actual AR experience
    • a display – to present the augmented reality to the user

    While AR devices share these building blocks, they still differ significantly in shape, color, and size. Let us explain.

    The various types of AR devices 

    Available AR devices can be divided into two large groups:

    • wearable devices – like smart glasses and head-mounted displays
    • non-wearable devices – such as smartphones, tablets, and computers

    The main distinctions here are the level of immersion and the kind of controls each type of gadget provides. For instance, head-mounted displays leverage your entire field of view, leaving your hands free most of the time. With smartphones, you need at least one hand to operate it, and the screen is relatively small. 

    Let’s look at a few real-world examples. To make this short and sweet, we’ve picked our favorite device from each category. 

    This class of AR devices provides an experience so immersive, it is widely referred to as MR – mixed reality. The thin line that separates it from VR is that users remain connected to the real world by seeing it through semi-transparent visors.

    Microsoft HoloLens 2 is an AR holographic headset with tons of processing power. It can analyze your gaze, take voice commands and recognize gestures – allowing you to interact with the stunningly realistic 2D or 3D holograms right in front of you. Or so you’ll think, looking at the incredibly detailed image on the 2k see-through display. 

    Smart Glasses

    As the name suggests, this kind of steroid-enhanced eyewear helps you see better by adding advanced tech marvels to regular eyeglass frames.

    Google Glass Enterprise Edition 2, as Google puts it, is “a small, lightweight wearable computer with a transparent display for hands-free work.” A miniature camera and a prism-like projection display are mounted into the frame with all other components – so you can enjoy the AR experience or make recordings all day long.

    Smartphones, tablets and computers

    Naturally, personal computers are the least capable of the bunch – with limited or no mobility at all. They also lack the sensors present in other devices. The AR experience, in this case, comes down to the functionality of built-in cameras.

    Tablets and smartphones, on the other hand, are portable, have all the imaginable sensors, and present plenty of options for augmented reality.

    Apple’s latest iPhone 12 is equipped with the newest LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology, which allows for accurate laser detection of the distance and depth to objects when using the back camera. This is good news for AR developers – a completely new level of accuracy when placing augmented content in the scene!

    Enough hardware talk for now. So how does augmented reality work and how we can use it on the devices we’ve mentioned?

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      AR applications in various industries

      The demand for augmented reality had been growing at a steady pace already, but the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated its growth even more. According to Statista’s data, the total number of AR users world-wide has reached 1.73 billion in 2020 and is expected to hit a startling 2.4 billion in 2023. Who are these people, and how are they using AR? Below are some of the most common applications of augmented reality technology. 


      While doctors have been using computers and tablets to track patients’ case history for some time, AR technology can offer a different experience altogether in areas like dentistry, surgery, medical training, etc. And this is where wearable solutions reign supreme. 

      Picture a physician who can spend more face time with a patient without being distracted by searching on their computer. The doctor receives all relevant information immediately and can view it on their smart glasses’ screen as they speak. 

      Or, perhaps, imagine a surgeon guiding their peers in an operating theater, placing their virtual hands on the patient’s body image being transferred in high resolution and in real time. The head-mounted display, with its semi-transparent lenses and hands-free operation, is indispensable in this scenario. The same approach is viable when training medical students.

      Education & Training

      AR is a huge asset to job training and education, especially now that most of it is remote. Students can use their smartphones to visualize the Solar System and interact with the models. In a similar way, smart glasses can ease the life of a service technician by displaying a 3D visualization of the steps needed to complete the task. 

      Entertainment & Gaming

      You’ve all heard of Pokemon GO. The AR-enabled mobile game was so popular when it came out in 2016, you’d literally see people bumping heads in the streets looking for those rare species. The gameplay is location-based, so the only way to succeed is by getting up and walking those miles.

      Ever used Snapchat? All of the funny and obnoxious filters you have applied to your face in this and similar applications are based on AR technology. How does augmented reality work so the software knows where your eyes fit on a chicken nugget?

      If you’re thinking of Google Maps and their recently improved Live View mode – you aren’t wrong. But, did you know that it’s also possible to AR-navigate inside a huge airport? This would require an infrastructure of beacons and/or an array of visual markers to help your phone’s GPS acquire its exact position, but airports like Gatwick and Dubai have already committed to the change. Now, any passenger can find their way easily to terminals, gates and stores with the help of augmented reality on their smartphone.

      Automotive brands like Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz have entered the domain of AR-enabled navigation, and we’ve seen how Tesla’s autopilot sees the world now. 

      The race is on!


      With lockdowns going in and out of effect and regulations on public spaces changing every day, retail business is speeding up its move to online sales. This is a chance for AR to be the knight in shining armor, and numerous vendors have rolled out apps already.

      The updated Nike app uses the camera and sensors in your phone to determine your true shoe size, so you can order new sneakers online with confidence.

      IKEA’s Place app makes furniture decisions easy with AR. Snap a room picture using your camera phone, and the app will recommend catalogue items that fit into that space. Pick the color and finish of a virtual coffee table and place it where you want it. The app will render an accurate 3D model, and if you like what you see, simply place the order!

      Chrono24, a luxury wristwatch marketplace, offers a virtual showroom app – for Android and iOS – so you can try on the most popular watches from your smartphone before paying the hefty price tag. 

      Manufacturing & Logistics

      DHL employees now receive instructions directly in their line of sight when sorting packages. The use of AR technology and smart glasses eliminates the need for paperwork, as well as the delays it can cause.

      Smart glasses can increase a jet engines’ assembly speed – those enormously complicated beasts – as tech manual overlays in augmented reality guide the mechanics.

      Military Solutions

      Speaking of planes, we have to mention the ridiculously expensive 

      $ 400,000 AR-enabled helmet that US pilots use to communicate with the F-35 fighter jet. Made with a custom-fit 3D insert to match the pilot’s head shape, the helmet is a part of a sophisticated system that can track, target and tackle other military to-dos. 

      Wrapping up

      As we can see, augmented reality technology is spreading its wings and taking flight. AR innovations will continue impacting many industries – from healthcare to entertainment and sales – in the years to come. It’s hard to imagine a version of our future where the benefits of AR are being ignored.

      Even though AR is in the nascent stages of development, it’s evident the market is huge and will keep growing. The mass arrival of 5G networks and devices will speed things up even more. So tapping into this particular segment right now may not be such a bad idea.

      Let’s share more about how augmented reality works – contact us to hear about the solutions we can create with this technology.

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