Augmented reality: what is it and how do you use it?

Jo Bowman

Angels falling from the sky into train stations and cityscapes that "tell" people everything, from which properties are for sale to where to find the nearest public toilets – these are all part of the fast-developing world of augmented reality. The superimposition of data and virtual images to the physical world is one the latest trends in communications, and has been given a huge boost by the rise of smartphones that combine cameras with location-tracking technology. But as with any emerging marketing technology, the best ways to use it, and the benefits it can deliver, are still being ironed out.

How does it work?

Augmented reality (AR) uses a webcam on a computer or the camera in a smartphone to 'see' something in the physical world; that image is then drawn into the virtual world, and what someone sees on their phone or computer screen is a combination of the two. So, they see themselves sitting at their own desk, but with other people, creatures or even cars in the room with them. Other incarnations of AR enable someone to look at their phone screen as if about to take a photo, but what they see is more than what is actually there. Like looking through your phone as you walk through parts of Berlin, and seeing what's there now but with the Berlin Wall in the places it used to stand. This is now possible.