2016 is turning out to be an amazing year for augmented reality

One way to tell that a new market is coming of age here in Silicon Valley is when special-purpose venture funds are formed to focus on it. Augmented reality has just achieved that milestone, with the launch of Super Ventures. The fund itself is small, but the event served as a great touch point for members of the still-close-knit AR community to come together and provide some insight on the future of AR, both for consumers and developers. It also serves as a sneak peak at the state of the industry ahead of the much-larger annual flagship Augmented World Expo this coming June.

What makes AR special?

Augmented reality is characterized by combining views of the “real world” with computer-generated content. I put real world in quotes because some AR solutions actually allow the user to see their surroundings and project generated content onto that view, while others use a live camera feed of the surroundings with an overlay of generated objects. The former have the advantage that they are much more natural to use, and allow a better sense of context for the user. The later are often simpler to implement, lower on processor power, and can run on standard-format mobile devices — without requiring special glasses.

Running untethered is even more important for AR than for VR. While some AR applications, like CastAR’s tabletop gaming, are confined to a small area, most involve allowing the user to move around in their environment and get an annotated (or augmented, if you will) view of reality. Microsoft’s HoloLens (now available to developers) and Magic Leap’s device (now being demoed privately) have attracted the most press among standalone solutions, but startups like ODG have been shipping untethered AR “smart glasses” for a while now.

AR doesn’t always require a geeky, new wearable

Unlike with VR, many AR applications run on either standard, or slightly-enhanced, mobile devices. For example, ScopeAR was demoing “over the shoulder” industrial coaching applications, where experts can be called in to help a worker in the field by illustrating the steps to take in performing a maintenance or repair operation — all as an overlay on the actual scene being captured by the mobile device’s own video camera. Pre-recorded tutorials can also be used “offline” to walk a user through a process — as long as the system has an accurate baseline image of the mechanism being worked on, initialized by the placement of a small marker device.