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Augmented Reality Defined

Augmented Reality has been the subject of scientific and engineering research for decades but has only recently been brought to the attention of wider audiences. As the concept is broad, it is easily confused with other new and emerging technologies with which it shares attributes.

The AREA offers a simple working definition that enterprises can reliably use.

What is it?

Augmented Reality refers to both the suite of enabling technologies and the resulting experience of a user when highly contextual digital information (in the form of text, images, graphics, animations, video, 3D models, sound or haptic stimuli) is presented in a manner that’s synchronized in real time, and appears attached to physical world people, places or objects.

Essential components

There are four essential components that work together to produce Augmented Reality experiences:

  • The physical world target
  • Software
  • Hardware
  • Digital content

Augmented Reality presents digital content in tight association with things in the real, or physical, world.

Milgram’s Continuum

Augmented Reality is often confused with another technology that relies on software, hardware and content but without the physical world: Virtual Reality. Augmented Reality always involves adding digital information in a manner that’s tightly synchronized with the physical world. In contrast, Virtual Reality is 100% imaginary or “synthetic.”

In 1994 Paul Milgram and Fumio Kishino defined a mixed reality continuum. On one end is the physical world without any digital enhancements and, on the other, the purely digital world (Virtual Reality). Augmented Reality is a form of mixed reality that is closer to the physical world than the purely digital world.


Presentation of Augmented Reality experiences can use a wide range of display or projection technologies and, in some cases, also have auditory or haptic forms. For visually presenting an Augmented Reality experience, a tablet with a front-facing camera, or, in some conditions, a hands-free wearable display (often called “smart glasses”) is proposed.

Virtual Reality requires hardware that entirely masks the physical world around the user. With VR the user doesn’t move around outside of a well-defined space because not being able to see the physical world raises significant risks (e.g., walking off of platforms, running into walls, tripping over objects, etc.).

Next generation user interface

Augmented Reality is emerging as the next user interface for presenting and capturing information that pertains to the physical world in context with the user’s focus of attention. More than just a novelty or amusement, Augmented Reality will permit users to perceive beyond the superficial and to perform complex tasks with assistance, reducing training and performance times, and error rates.

This new approach to presenting, capturing and interacting with information will enable organizations to tap other emerging technology trends such as the Internet of Things, cloud computing, high-performance, lightweight displays and high speed networks to their full potential.

Is it true Augmented Reality?

While the diversity of technologies that can support Augmented Reality continues to proliferate, a framework by which people can determine if the system they are using provides full Augmented Reality can be useful. In its primer on the topic, the University of Washington Tech Policy Lab offers six features that are present in most AR systems:

  1. Sense properties about the real world. The system will collect various forms of data about the world as the user experiences it. Sensors may include video (e.g., depth cameras, cameras worn on the body), audio, haptic input (i.e., detecting physical touch), location (e.g., GPS, GSM triangulation), motion, or wireless signals (e.g., WiFi, Bluetooth).
  2. Process in real time. Inputs from the sensors will be analyzed and used by the system in real time. Some information may be stored for later analysis or sharing (e.g., life logging), but at least some of the data is used in real time.
  3. Output (overlay) information to the user. Information gathered and processed by the system will generally be overlaid on the user’s usual perception of the world; this is unlike Virtual Reality, which entirely replaces the user’s setting with a new environment. In Augmented Reality, information may be conveyed to the user via a variety of devices, including a screen, a speaker, or haptic feedback (e.g., vibrations, air pulses). Researchers are even experimenting via contact lenses.
  4. Provide contextual information. The information provided by the system to the user is contextual and timely, meaning it will relate to what the user is currently experiencing. For example: real time in situ language translation, ratings for restaurants passed on the street, or arrival time updates while waiting at the bus stop.
  5. Recognize and track real world objects. The system will tend to track or process real world objects or people in the user’s view. For example, a facial recognition application may recognize faces and label them with names as the identified person moves through the user’s field of view.
  6. Be mobile or wearable. In the long term, we expect that many Augmented Reality systems will be wearable (e.g., AR glasses), and the majority of our analysis will focus on such systems. However, a system does not need to be wearable to technically be considered an AR system; mobile options include some smartphone applications and heads-up displays in cars. Similarly, the Xbox Kinect facilitates many AR applications, but is not itself mobile.

More definitions

People have been defining Augmented Reality almost as long as research on the topic has been conducted. One of the early definitions that stood the test of time was that provided by Ron Azuma. The definition on Wikipedia has also frequently been cited. There are dozens more such terms but the real test of a definition is how well it reduces confusion and gets used. We encourage you to share with us the definition that you prefer and provide us your feedback on ours.