How Augmented Reality (AR) Technology Works

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Go on Instagram and take a picture of yourself. But before you do, choose a graphics-based filter. Did you see the application scan your face first? Did you notice how accurately it placed the piece of digital art right after?

What you just experienced is a typical example of augmented reality (AR) technology at work. It’s in our phones, our tablets, and nearly any type of handheld device. It is so intuitive you probably don’t even remember when you started using it! But if you clicked on this article, you’re probably now wondering how AR technology works.

Every day, AR is increasingly becoming ingrained in our daily experiences. Your friends, your family, and your target users have, in one way or another, encountered this valuable technology. Billions of smartphone users have easy access to AR experiences today! So if you’re wondering how AR works and how your company can maximize this highly accessible tool, read on.

Image credits to Canva

What Is Augmented Reality?

Believe it or not, you’ve already had your fair share of encounters with augmented reality technology. If you’ve used filters on Facebook’s Messenger or Instagram — like earlier — or have scanned QR codes leading you to external sites, you’re already well-acquainted with AR. 

In a previous blog post, we summed up the definition of AR technology as one that places digital art in our immediate environment in real-time. This is the basic definition of visual AR, which we can simplify into two components. The first one is augmented reality art, often rendered in 3D; the second one is the technology enabling the experience.

We’ve talked about the graphical aspect of the AR experience. Here, we talk about how the technical part works. Note we are tackling only visual-based AR, so this excludes other potential facets, including sound and smell.

Augmented reality is a wide-ranging field, and examining how its overall technology works requires volumes of data. So let’s narrow it down further. The type of AR technology we want to talk to you about pertains to mobile augmented reality experiences with specific tracking systems. What makes this particular experience necessary is it’s presently the most accessible! This means you can target a huge audience with this approach.

Now, when thinking about the technological aspect of AR development, keep the following concepts in mind:

  • Display: This is where you experience AR technology. It’s where you view visual AR elements, and today it commonly means your smartphone. According to the paper Augmented Reality: An Overview, there are three major types of displays. These are the HMD, handheld displays, and spatial displays. Your mobile device is the handheld display.
  • Tracking: This is how your application detects the environment or set of patterns on your device’s camera. By identifying these, your AR application will know where to place the AR assets in its database. 
Image credits to Canva

How AR Works

Let’s say you’re walking through an art gallery where, instead of actual artwork on the walls, you’re met with cryptic patterns. You whip out your smartphone, view these patterns on your camera through an application, and on your screen suddenly pops up the actual piece of art.

Or let’s say you’ve downloaded a mobile gaming application. To access the game, you must view your environment through your phone camera. And only then will the game characters appear — in your environment as though they were actually there.

Aren’t these ideas interesting? Wouldn’t you be compelled to use the application over and over again? These are not far-fetched from what we already have today. What we’ve described just now are AR experiences close to MoMAR and Pokémon Go (2016).

These two exemplify common tracking approaches in AR, which make use of handheld display devices. And the way this AR technology works is simply like this:

The tracking aspect of AR technology maps your location, your environment’s location, and your position relative to your environment. By tracking, your AR application will look for specific triggers to render the AR elements. 

But how does visual tracking work for AR applications? Through tracking, the AR application will look for triggers. These triggers can either be specific or context-based. In other words, markerless or marker-based.

Markerless

Markerless tracking is the more popular method for triggering AR assets. This is what social applications use to know where to place asset-based filters on the user; what Google’s web app Floom uses to know where to place its AR portal; what Pokémon Go uses to know where to place Pokémon creatures on your screen. It doesn’t need a specific trigger. What it does need are specific features in your environment. 

For markerless tracking to work, an application should have predefined features (often geometric) registered in its database. According to the paper Markerless Tracking for Augmented Reality, once the application detects the registered features and matches them with what it sees on your device’s camera, it will render the image relative to you. This is one way tracking works for AR applications.

Image credits to Canva

Marker-based

When AR technology was new, it relied on specific markers or images to work, not features. In the Philippines, contact tracing for COVID in the mall or any crowded establishment requires people to fill out a form that appears when they scan the QR code on their phone camera. 

The same principle applies to marker-based AR tracking. With a specific marker, either a picture marker or ID-encoded marker, the application signals the AR asset to appear on the marker’s location. This is another method AR applications employ to track a user’s environment. While not as popular as markerless tracking, marker-based AR still has a wide range of uses in advertising, eLearning, and even art!

How Augmented Reality Applications Are Made

There are no hard and fast rules for developing AR applications. In itself, augmented reality is a broad subject. Today’s complex technologies alone allow for a ton of approaches. But it all boils down to the type of AR project you want to achieve.

Typically, the AR projects NarraSoft receives are of a specific kind. We often build mobile AR applications with a markerless tracking system. This kind of AR experience, while simple, has applications for nearly all industries. This is how we make it.

The first thing we do is model and sculpt the 3D art we will add to the database. Our 3D digital artists use different tools, such as Substance Painter and Autodesk Maya, to design the 3D art. 

Then, we convert these assets into files readable on our AR software. Software development kits (SDKs) are some of the best and fastest options to make 3D art usable on AR applications. A good example of an AR SDK, which NarraSoft also uses, is ARKit by Apple. 

And lastly, we optimize the assets for the AR application through special software.

Learn more about other widely used SDKs on our blog post “How Are Augmented Reality and Artificial Intelligence Related?

Image credits to Canva

How AR Is Used & How Your Business Can Benefit From It

Medical visualization

According to the book Visual Computing for Medicine, medical visualization is a technique used to explore medical data through images. Authors Bernhard Preim, Charl Botha note the diverse applications of medical visualization, including treatment planning, intraoperative support, and medical research.

Augmented reality technology has impressive capabilities in supporting medical visualization. There are cases where surgeons integrate AR-based assistance during operations to minimize errors during the procedure. Patients can better understand their condition with the help of AR, a technology that can localize and form images of critical areas.

With AR technology, medical professionals can gain visual data, minimize risks, and inform patients — and even fellow professionals — more effectively.

Interactive marketing

Marketing on mobile doesn’t always have to follow a narrative route toward persuasion. In fact, a more useful tactic would be one geared toward practicality, something AR is often implemented for! 

Using AR technology, your target audience can easily visualize what your product does or how your services work in their environment and in real-time. And the best part is they can even interact with the AR assets to help them better understand the work your company does. 

Retail and e-commerce applications

This is similar to interactive marketing in that your target customers get a feel of what it’s like to have your product or experience your service. Except this time, they’re much closer to making a decision. Needless to say, this type of AR experience is all the more crucial. 

To move your target consumers to conversion, you can give them opportunities to experience what it’s like to have your product already. Several companies, such as IKEA, L’Oreal, and Converse, have used AR applications to do just this. 

In fact, some of our clients have wisely integrated AR into their stores’ mobile apps and websites. We’ve designed and rendered assets such as furniture, sunglasses, and different pieces of apparel for them — your company can make this smart decision, too.

Localized gaming

Localized gaming, or gaming that adapts to a user’s environment, is an excellent way to integrate AR into mobile games. Real-world locations become a vital element to the game, which can give users unique experiences.

The successful and ever-popular mobile game Pokémon Go makes use of AR technology to do localized gaming. This mobile game lets users find Pokémon in certain real-world places! You, too, can elevate your mobile app’s gameplay using this technique.

Engaging e-learning

Learning new concepts is not always an easy task, especially if the subject is out of our reach. But what if you could bring these subjects to an accessible level, like say, the palm of your hand?

Using augmented reality technology as a teaching tool is becoming standard practice. According to an article on EdTech, a professor at a university employs this tool to teach students Earth science! Instead of passively viewing images of landscapes and bodies of water, students get to interact with them.

Like we said, given how AR technology works, students and learners suddenly gain access to subjects not immediately available, from those on a microscopic level to those on a grand, galactic level.

Prototyping in manufacturing

Prototyping is the process of experimenting with designs and ideas before fully committing to an approach toward an output. This applies to programming, manufacturing, and any type of project that requires trial-and-error.

While the previous applications affect end-users directly, this application influences the development of a product or output, whether it affects users directly or otherwise. 

According to AR and VR scholar Steve Aukstakalnis, prototyping with AR may eliminate the need for physical prototypes. This is because through a virtual prototype, designers and manufacturers can minimize errors. This can save a company time and resources in the process!

In Summary

So, how does augmented reality work? AR technology works differently depending on the application or project. In this article, we tackled the most accessible approach to visual AR, which uses handheld devices for display and markerless or marker-based tracking.

For your application to render AR assets or digital art on your screen, developers first need to predefine the features that will signal the assets to appear. Once the display’s camera identifies these features, the application then receives a signal to render the digital art.

Like how AR works? Thinking of applying it to your next digital project? Then you’re in luck! You’ve landed on the right page. 

NarraSoft offers augmented reality art development and 3D digital art creation services. And we are more than happy to help you build an outstanding digital project.

Send us an email at sales@narrasoft.com or message our contact form or chat box. We will give you a free consultation, so contact us today!


Sources: Augmented Reality: An Overview (Handbook of Augmented Reality, 2011) | Markerless Tracking for Augmented Reality (Handbook of Augmented Reality, 2011) | QR Code Based Augmented Reality Applications (Handbook of Augmented Reality, 2011) | Visual Computing for Medicine (2014) | interaction-design.org

Justine Jordan

Justine Jordan is a content and copy writer. She has written for a popular business daily in the Philippines and for various startups across the globe before transitioning to work for NarraSoft. She graduated cum laude from the University of the Philippines-Diliman with a bachelor's degree in journalism.