A brief history of Augmented Reality

While Augmented Reality appears today as one of the flagships of modern technology, that new features are constantly enriching its use, the history of Augmented Reality is much older than it seems.

History of Augmented Reality

History of Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality imagined from 1901

At the very beginning of the 20th century, the concept of Augmented Reality was imagined by a famous author. In his novel The Master Key, L. Frank Baum, who is none other than the author of “The Wizard of Oz”, describes some features of Google Glass … which will emerge over 100 years later. In his novel, he talks about glasses that would allow the wearer to see a letter appearing on the forehead of the people he meets with a letter corresponding to their personalities:/p>

It consists of this pair of spectacles. While you wear them every one you meet will be marked upon the forehead with a letter indicating his or her character. The good will bear the letter ‘G,’ the evil the letter ‘E.’ The wise will be marked with a W “etc.… “Thus you may determine by a single look the true natures of all those you encounter.

A first approach in Augmented Reality in 1962

Sensorama Augmented Reality

Sensorama : the first Augmented Reality booth

In the 1960s, a new video immersion project appeared, the Sensorama. Imagined by Morton Heilig in the 1950s, it was supposed to appeal to the five senses (hence its name) in order to include the viewer in the film on the screen. The prototype was finalized in 1962 and included a color screen, fans, scent emitters, a stereo sound system and a movable chair. These different elements were activated according to the film projected on the screen. This concept is closer to virtual reality (simulation of the physical presence in an artificial environment) but it is a first approach to AR.

The first Augmented Reality modules from 1968

American engineer Ivan Sutherland is often recognized as one of the pioneers in the history of Augmented Reality. In fact, in the 1960s he designed 3D modeling and visual simulation software, the Sketchpad. This was developed as part of his thesis at the prestigious Boston University of Technology, MIT.

Ivan Sutherland, inventor of Augmented Reality

Ivan Sutherland, inventor of Augmented Reality

In 1968, the device “A head-mounted three dimensional display” was deployed at the University of Salt Lake City, in Utah (United States), a pair of glasses to see images in 3D. These were actual ancestors Google Glass. This installation was so heavy and imposing that it was nicknamed “the sword of Damocles”. It needed to be suspended from the ceiling in order to support its weight and users had to be strapped to the device in order to create better immersion, which made the experience quite uncomfortable. Although we were still a long way from the lightness and mobility of Google Glass, this innovation is still considered a major part in the history of Augmented Reality.

In 1980, Steve Mann developed the EyeTap, a helmet that displays virtual information in front of the user’s eye. This is the first model of augmented reality headset that is functional. The EyeTap still exists today : it has been sharpened until it became as discreet and minimalist as a simple pair of glasses.

Original version of the EyeTap worn by its creator, Steve Mann

Original version of the EyeTap worn by its creator, Steve Mann

A belated mainstream introduction

Over the following decades, advancements in the history of Augmented Reality have mostly served specific sectors such as aviation, military defense, or industry. Though it was added to a few devices in the 2000s, it was really in the 2010s that Augmented Reality settled in advertising. Big companies like Disney, Coca Cola or Pepsi have seized the AR in order to create large-scale commercial operations, using screens placed in bus shelters for example.

In 2012, Google launched the Google Glass test, the first AR product marketed on a large scale and making this technology accessible to all. However, this product did not meet its audience and marks one of the biggest flops in the history of Augmented Reality. Google quickly stopped the production of these glasses in early 2015. In 2019, there was another twist in the Google Glass adventure, the web giant decided to relaunch the production of its glasses, but only for professionals this time.

Snapchat marks a turning point in the history of Augmented Reality

Pepsi Lens Snapchat

A Pepsi Lens on Snapchat

In the social media, Snapchat democratized AR to all users, sometimes without even knowing it. The app first introduced “geofilters” in 2014, some filters that would change depending on where you were. Actually, these were more “frames” or objects that users could place on their screen in order to indicate to their subscribers where they were.

In 2015, Lenses appeared on the social network. This feature analyzes the user’s face from their front camera and brings different graphic elements on screen, which can then be shared in photos and videos. This option has revolutionized the use of social networks, and Instagram, Messenger or WhatsApp quickly seized the phenomenon to compete in the number of users. This new possibility also interested brands, who saw it as a new way to promote a product, a concept or simply work on their image, by creating their Snapchat lens and thus gain visibility.

More recently, Gucci has partnered with Snapchat to allow users to virtually try on shoes or watches from their collection.

The Pokemon Go ! revolution

Pokemon Go Augmented Reality

Catch Pokemon in your real environment

Released in 2016, the mobile app placed Augmented Reality at the core of its gameplay. The players wander in their real environment, with their phone, in order to catch Pokemon or to defeat other players during fights. Who has never seen a horde of Pokemon fans moving around and staring at their screens, to catch Pokemon? Although in 2020 the game is no longer at the top of downloads, it remains very popular and continues to make a lot of money for Niantic, the company that developed the game. In 2019, it even achieved its more profitable financially year, bringing in $ 900 million in revenue. A success due to the popularity of the franchise but also to the integration of AR, which has revolutionized mobile gaming. Subsequently, many other games developed based on AR: Harry Potter: Wizards Unit, Angry Birds AR: Isle of Pigs, The Walking Dead: Our World.

Content updated on October 5th, 2020
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