A Beginner’s Guide to Augmented Reality

In this blog, we keep talking about different augmented reality (AR) applications, but I’m sure there’s still some of you who wonder, “what’s behind this AR thing and is it really all it’s cracked up to be?” If that’s you, then you should definitely read on. But don’t worry, even if you’re not exactly tech-savvy, this is the post you want to read.

Now, to prove to you that I didn’t lure you here under false pretences – full disclosure: I don’t have a background in technology myself and I’d never heard of augmented reality until I started working at CodeFlügel. Over the past three years, I’ve slowly built an understanding and, most importantly, a fascination for AR, which is why I now want to share my awesome discovery with you. While I’m absolutely sure it’s not going to take you that long to get a handle on things, I know this article alone is not going to do it. Luckily, we’ve planned a couple of similar entries for the upcoming weeks, so do keep an eye out. But let’s get started on the basics.

What’s AR and what do I do with it?

Augmented Reality adds digital content and information to the real world. As opposed to virtual reality, where you put on your goggles and are completely immersed in a digital scene, augmented reality can be made visible in their actual surroundings with the help of smartphones and tablets. Examples include our apps for the companies Hella, Hartl Haus and Seidel. There, we place digital awnings on actual buildings, show you three-dimensional house models in printed catalogues  and make the insides of vehicles visible without actually opening them up.

hella-markisenviewer

digital awnings on real walls

hartl-haus-3D-modell

3D models in catalogues

seidel-jetflyer-AR

animated electronic parts

 

These are the more complex scenarios though – a more simple application would be to enrich all kinds of printed materials in order to make them more interactive and easily link them with already existing digital content. You can send out talking invitation cards, create brochures with clickable links and shop online by simply placing products from the printed catalog directly in your online shopping basket. Or you can catch some impressed looks by bringing the pictures in a magazine to life, like we did in the following video.

“Great, and how do I do that?”

In order to view augmented reality content, you need specific apps, depending on what you want to display. In other words, you can view our or our customers’ content with their apps. If you want to look at someone else’s content (like IKEA or LEGO products) in AR, you will of course need their app to do that. The app, in turn, needs two things: a target to track and some content to display – then it’s ready to go.

“Huh, target? Tracking what?”

Yes, you’re right – it’s not as simple as I try to make it sound. Targets, also referred to as markers, are used for determining the content’s location and position (i.e. tracking). A target is a picture, such as a product image, to which the digital content is linked. The target is needed to determine the right position and scale of the content, be it a link, a picture, video or 3D model. Therefore, the app can only “know” what to display how and where by referring to such a target.

As for tracking, there’s a number of different ways. The simplest method uses targets which are similar to QR codes, which track really well but aren’t very pretty to look at. The best tracking method is the so-called natural feature tracking (NFT). Here, the AR app searches for reference points in normal images, which also work particularly well when combined with text. You can use almost any image, but the tracking does tend to suffer with very symmetrical or straight geometrical structures – which is the case for some company logos. But the advantages of NFT are quite clear: the choice of potential targets is nearly unlimited and the targets are not immediately recognizable as such by the user. This makes them most suitable for marketing materials, since the design won’t have to suffer even a bit.

Other ways of tracking are extended tracking, where the target is only used for the initial positioning of the content. After that, the content can be easily repositioned (which you can use to place digital furniture items in your actual apartment). Then there is 3D tracking, which uses real objects as targets and instant tracking, where you can display AR content on a target of your choice.

marker-tracking

marker tracking

natural-feature-tracking

natural feature tracking with reference points

ChairDemo2

reposition objects with extended tracking

 

 
 
 

 

 

“Doesn’t it work just fine without AR?”

Sure, it works, but it’s not as exciting as with AR. If you ask me, it’s true: a picture is worth a thousand words – but a 3D model is worth a thousand pictures! Let’s stick with the our example of a house manufacturer’s product catalogue. The printed pictures and floor plans are extremely important, so you can get an idea of what a certain house could look like. But only in connection with augmented reality content you can get the feeling of really having seen the place, and you don’t need to leave the comfort of your sofa to do it. Also, offers the unique advantage of customizing 3D models, which means you can choose between different kinds of wood, colors or roof types. Sure, I could go online and look at the company’s web page or online shop and try to find more info there. But if I can do that by just scanning a picture inside the catalogue, I’ll be more likely to do that, no?

“Why now? Why isn’t it more widely used already?”

Because the time has come! While it’s true that AR is still a very new and unknown technology in most fields, it has actually been studied since the 1960s, if you can believe it. However, the first AR systems were stationary (i.e. only usable within a fixed hardware setting) and pretty expensive. But especially over the past few years, there have been considerable changes on the smartphone market, with phones that perform the same as notebooks did only a few years ago. So now, you can view augmented reality on most mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, making nearly everyone a potential user. Therefore, all that is missing is the right software and enough appealing digital content, which means that the more we use augmented reality, the more useful and important its applications will become. And it seems we’re on the right track, since the number of AR apps out there has substantially increased. Even though the general public might not have caught up to this technology yet, the marketing campaigns by companies like LEGO, IKEA, McDonalds, VW and many more tell a different story.

I know, many people view Augmented Reality as a nice gimmick or an at most moderately useful marketing gag. Maybe that’s been your view as well, but since you’ve now read this article all the way down to here, I hope my examples could sway your opinion at least a little bit. If you’re burning to talk some more about this topic or one of your questions is still unanswered, I’d be happy to hear from you!