For a hot minute in 2016, the whole world, it seemed, was playing Pokemon GO.

The popular Japanese series had been a cartoon, a card game and a series of successful video games, most famously on the Nintendo Game Boy platform.

Pokemon Go overlaid virtual creatures on the real world.

Pokemon Go overlaid virtual creatures on the real world.Credit:Peter Rae

But Pokemon GO, a game app for smartphones, spread like wildfire even among people who would not know a Bulbasaur from a Charmander.

The game’s big innovation was it required players to physically step out of their houses and travel across the land, searching far and wide for the elusive creatures.

Players’ phone screens would show a rendering of their physical location, overlaid with game information, including animations of the Pokemon that could be “captured” and “trained”.

Pokemon GO was one of the first examples of a technology platform called “augmented reality” achieving huge mainstream success. The game was downloaded more than 500 million times worldwide by the end of 2016 and became a mainstream cultural phenomenon.

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By the end of that year, as so often happens with such phenomena, interest in the game waned as people moved on to the next new thing. While it remains a viable game today and is still available to download, it does not have anything approaching the user base it did during that first wave of popularity.

However, the technology that underpinned the game never went away.

Augmented reality – usually shortened to “AR” in the same way that its cousin technology virtual reality is shortened to “VR” – uses technology to overlay digital information onto a real-world environment.

While often seen as a gimmick or a novelty even at the time Pokemon GO came out, the technology has now been quietly embraced by multiple fields, to the point that many people may be using augmented reality technology without even realising it.

“Every time someone uses a Snapchat filter, they are using augmented reality, people just don’t think of it that way,” said Dr Leigh Ellen Potter, an information and communication technology specialist and director of the IDEA (Innovative Design and Emerging Applications) Lab at Griffith University.

“People think of AR as something quite futuristic that’s not here yet. The common example is Tony Stark in The Avengers, when he’s waving his hands around and moving digital models through the air. But people are already using it every day.”

Depictions of augmented reality technology have become more commonplace in popular culture as interest waned in virtual reality, once itself a sci-fi darling.

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The limitations of virtual reality, with its clunky headsets, jarred with people’s conception of a sleek, futuristic technology that would transport them to a different world.

Instead, AR builds on the world in front of the user. The technology is designed to use reality as a starting point and then layer content on top, whether that be information about products, real-time location and navigation, or just playing a game about catching strange creatures.

Movies such as the Iron Man franchise and Tom Cruise’s Minority Report (pictured) depicted AR concepts without audiences realising what they were, experts say.

Movies such as the Iron Man franchise and Tom Cruise’s Minority Report (pictured) depicted AR concepts without audiences realising what they were, experts say.

One of the main ways people would encounter AR in the world would be via QR codes, which users can scan to initiate AR content on their mobile device.

The codes have now become commonplace due to the pandemic, which experts say only helps AR’s take-up by casual users, who now instinctually know what the codes are and how they work.

Australian company Unbnd has been working in the AR space for several years as boutique developers for companies wanting to use the technology to enhance their businesses.

Managing partner David Loughnan said companies tended to approach them with a general idea about using augmented reality and Unbnd came up with appropriate ways to integrate it into their existing models.

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He points to a recent partnership with Nike and Rebel Sports where they put Snap codes on all Nike shoes in the sporting outlet. Users could scan the code on their phones, bringing up information and animations about the shoe they were looking at.

“If you as a customer walks in and sees 15 to 20 competing shoe brands, but one of them has these codes hanging off the shoe, it immediately creates engagement,” he said.

“Experiences like that get you interacting with the brand front and centre and increase customers’ likelihood of going on to purchase.

“So that’s one way of using augmented reality technology in the retail space to give a leg-up over competing brands and products.”

Unbnd uses Snapchat’s Lens technology as its primary development software, with the social media company positioning itself in recent years as the logical middle-man between developers and companies that want AR experiences.

Clare Nash, an executive with Snap Australia, said the company, with its focus on filters for videos, was already involved in the AR space and had moved to help other people take up the technology.

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“The growth of our daily active AR users is outpacing our daily active user growth by more than 80 per cent as people interact more with AR on Snapchat,” she said.

“Currently over 200 million Snapchatters engage with AR everyday. In Q1 2021, the number of Snapchatters engaging daily with our augmented reality Lenses grew more than 40 per cent year-over-year.”

Ms Nash said the AR sector was predicted to record a 10-fold increase in value globally by 2023, although most of that growth would be in the entertainment sector.

Beyond the private sector, many governments are getting involved in the AR space.

The Victorian government has already invested $148 million in AR and VR education programs, which is a natural application of both technologies.

The Queensland government has also invested heavily in the technology, setting up its “XR Hub” through Advance Queensland to help accelerate small companies working in the AR and VR areas.

“XR” is becoming a common way of referring to both AR and VR collectively, with the term “mixed reality” also being frequently used by people in the industry.

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Augmented reality experiences have been incorporated as part of events such as the Brisbane Festival.

Augmented reality experiences have been incorporated as part of events such as the Brisbane Festival.

Snap’s Lens app will be integrated into new Samsung smartphones going forward, while the company has also moved to use LiDAR scanning in iPhone 12 Pro models to allow apps to scan physical spaces to render AR constructs over them in real-time.

And Snap is far from the only company to investigate the possibilities of AR, although in many ways it is standing on the shoulders of giants.

When Google released its Google Glass headset in 2014, the world reacted with bemusement. The headset, which featured a small on-board computer feeding a display projected onto a clear viewscreen, was heralded by the company as the next step in wearable technology.

Outside of hardcore tech enthusiasts, Google Glass elicited little more than a shrug, and it was soon shelved by the company.

“Google Glass failed because people weren’t ready for it,” Dr Potter said. “Not because the technology was faulty or not up to scratch.”

She believed in the intervening years, people had slowly come to accept the concept of wearable devices and more integrated technology.

“To a large extent the technology already exists, it’s a matter of people being ready for it,” she said.

“Even things like smartphones and tablets – that technology is young, the iPad is only about 10 years old, the iPhone is only 13.

“That technology existed for years but it wasn’t until Apple came along with their first iPhone that everyone jumped on board and everything changed.”

Augmented reality expert and start-up founder Mark Concannon did some work on Google Glass during its development phase.

He said while the technology was functional at the time, wearable devices were now far more viable than when Google first dipped its toes in the water.

“The technology has come a long way in the last 10 years. There’s so much more functionality, power processing, visual components, how the displays are projected onto glass, everything,” he said.

Google co-rounder Sergey Brin wears Google Glass glasses in 2013.

Google co-rounder Sergey Brin wears Google Glass glasses in 2013.Credit:Jeff Chiu

The paradigm shift in take-up of AR, he said, was going to be to advance the technology from phones to wearable headsets.

That seemed laughable in 2014, but Mr Concannon said he believed it was not only possible but necessary for the technology to reach its full potential.

“The phone camera is now doing a lot of the heavy lifting for these things, what’s referred to a ‘pass-through’ AR, where you’re not really looking through glass, the camera has to be involved,” he said.

“The phone was a good and necessary step for AR – they have a lot of processing power, they have relatively good battery life, there’s a lot of physical infrastructure already in place.

“The downside is that it’s not what the phone was made for, it was made for lighter, more occasional use, not the constant demands of AR.”

Dr Potter agreed the future of AR would be in wearable technology after spending a long time using smartphones as a natural platform.

“Anyone who has a smartphone in their back pocket is walking around with an AR-enabled device they can use to interact with their environment, and Pokemon GO was what made that so obvious,” she said.

“But there are a number of different groups who are currently working on a version of Google Glass, and when they get that technology right, that’s going to be the game-changer.”

In many ways, augmented reality is being talked about in the way virtual reality was a decade ago.

Selen Turkay, a lecturer in Computer Human Interaction at QUT, does a lot of work with virtual reality, which she insists is still a viable technology.

She said she doesn’t see AR supplementing VR for personal and business use, because both have strengths and weaknesses.

“With augmented reality, some of the strength is that because we still feel and see where we are, it’s easier to overlay extra information,” Dr Turkay said.

“The other thing is because you can see the actual environment, it’s easier to use it outside, you can’t put on a VR headset and walk around in the world, you’ll be bumping into things.

“VR’s strength is in its immersiveness. So if we want to really immerse people’s sense, and really feel like being somewhere, and interact with things virtually, that’s where it shines.”

Microsoft’s HoloLens headsets have been pointed to as a major step forward for wearable AR devices.

Microsoft’s HoloLens headsets have been pointed to as a major step forward for wearable AR devices.Credit:Sitthixay Ditthavong

Dr Turkay and colleagues are currently working on creating complete virtual environments for NASA scientists to explore the surface of Mars without having to leave their labs, using VR headsets.

Both technologies are used extensively in corporate and industrial training. Some companies offer full-VR training, especially for dangerous jobs deemed too risky to do on-site training. Others set up AR experiences, overlaying information at the site to guide employees through tasks.

Dr Potter said VR had paved the way for the coming of AR by making many of the mistakes which AR has been able to avoid.

“My students are always astonished when I tell them that head-mounted VR was around in the ’60s. It’s just that the technology wasn’t ready,” she said.

“For it to be naturally folded into your day-to-day life, that’s when technology is at its best. Not when it’s imposing something on you, but when it adds to your experience.”

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