In this article you will learn about the history of augmented reality and its future. While the term ‘augmented reality’ was conceived in the 1990s, the technology traces back to the late 1960s. Today, it is starting to be commonplace in people’s minds, albeit behind its cousin technology, virtual reality. AR has grown year after year from $14.84 billion in 2020 to a projected $454.73 billion by 2030. But where did it all begin? To get a sense of the beginnings of augmented reality, VR Expert highlights the history of augmented reality and what it might tell of its future.
We will also update this article as new milestones in augmented reality are reached. Last Updated 30 November 2022
Giambattista Della Porta was the first record to describe the rudimentary concept of augmented reality. In his book “Magia Naturalis”, published in 1584, he describes a glass pane reflecting objects in a different light and position, making it seem as if they’re not where they actually are. Interestingly, this controlling of light within or through modified glass is how AR works today.
“Let there be a chamber wherein no other light comes, unless by the door or window where the spectator looks in. Let the whole window or part of it be of glass, as we use to do to keep out the cold. But let one part be polished, that there may be a Looking-glass on bothe sides, whence the spectator must look in. For the rest do nothing. Let pictures be set over against this window, marble statues and suchlike. For what is without will seem to be within, and what is behind the spectator’s back, he will think to be in the middle of the house, as far from the glass inward, as they stand from it outwardly, and clearly and certainly, that he will think he sees nothing but truth.” – Magia Naturalis by Giambattista Della Porta (1584)
Henry Dircks invented a projection illusion where a second room – hidden from a theater audience – is projected onto a 45-degree tilted glass, making it seem that elements in the hidden room appear on the glass surface between the theater stage and audience.
Initially, the invention failed, but after John Henry Pepper came on board, the technology was popularized and used to create a ghostly projection, thereby adopting the name “Pepper’s Ghost”. The invention is still used in theaters today.
Before 1974 and even into the early ’90s, augmented reality was considered interchangeable with virtual reality and its developments. So if you want a deeper look into virtual and mixed reality, our article on VR history provides you with this context.
Nevertheless, when computer scientist and artist, Myron Kruger, displayed an interactive video installation called “Videoplace”, it was the first time people had seen interactable AR with the real world.
AR and VR began charting their own paths after 1992 when the term augmented reality was coined in a research paper by two Boeing researchers, Tom Caudell and David Mizell. Although, in the publication, they called AR “a heads-up, see-through, head-mounted display (HUDSET)”. But it had the exact qualities that augmented reality today features.
Similarly, Louis Rosenberg, from USAF Armstrong’s Research Lab, developed another prototype meant for the US Air Force for onboarding and training new pilots. The invention was called “Virtual Fixture” and used an exoskeleton installed on the wearer with robotic arms acting as hand tracking for the virtual elements displayed in the real world. Despite being researched for the US Air Force, Virtual Fixture was tested as surgical technology, helping surgeons to precision cut from virtual rulers on their patient’s body.
All the acronyms, abbreviations, and terms in augmented and virtual reality can get confusing. See our extensive glossary for VR/AR.
Theatre production got a hold of the emerging AR technology to create otherwordly experiences. Writer and producer Julie Martin’s “Dancing in Cyberspace” even used this. It worked with dancers performing side-by-side with projected virtual objects.
Beginning in hockey, Fox Sports needed to make hockey more enjoyable to watch on television, as a tiny black puck can be impossible to trace after certain speeds. The result was sensors inside the puck itself showing a blue glow around it and a red tail when it reached speeds over 70 mph (112 km/h). It didn’t catch on, but the researchers developing the technology founded Sportvision, taking on the NHL with what is known as the “Yellow Yard Marker”.
Don’t know what smart glasses are compared to AR? See here all smart glasses from 2021 until now.
In a nutshell, Sportvision used the football field as ‘the headset’ and the video cameras around as ‘outside-in tracking stations’. Through this, they drew a yellow line in real-time and used software to distinguish between what was the field and the players so the yellow line would appear as part of the field. Interestingly, the basic technology is still used today, just more sophisticated.
The software developer Hirokazu Kato created and released the first open-source software SDK “ARToolKit”, which is still used today to create augmented reality experiences. Similar to how AR is prompted on smartphones today, ARToolKit uses markers to base the augmented reality experience. For example, ARToolKit was the first SDK in phones running on the Symbian operating system in 2005, iPhone 3G in 2008, and Android in 2010.
While technically not the first AR experience to appear in print media, that goes to the German ad agencies promoting the new BMW Mini in 2008.
The first video-based AR experience to spring from printed media was to promote and shine an AR spotlight on the movie “Sherlock Holmes” starring Robert Downey Jr. Esquire Magazine showing augmented reality for the first time in print with its pages springing alive once scanned.
Magic Leap was founded in 2010 by Rony Abovitz to prototype and develop the first high-performing AR headset. Eight years after its establishment, in 2018, Magic Leap released its first-generation headset: Magic Leap One. The headset was a ground-breaking achievement blending the digital and physical hybrid with sophisticated physics, situationally aware lighting, and shading of virtual objects.
However, Magic Leap’s focus on consumers ended up pivoting towards enterprises with its successor, Magic Leap 2 in 2022. It featured mind-bending technologies such as Dynamic Dimming, controlling the passthrough of light entering the wearer’s eyes for increased immersion.
While it is considered one of the main driving forces of AR today, in 2013, Volkswagen, for the first time launched its augmented reality app MARTA (Mobile Augmented Reality Technical Assistance) featured in their service manuals, signifying the beginning of how AR would revolutionize industry and manufacturing.
Similarly, in the latter half of 2013, the historic VR and AR company Vuzix started to ship its Vuzix M100 AR extension to be attached to safety glasses or visors. A device positioned for the very purposes shown by Volkswagen.
Today, the successor Vuzix M400 is one of the best AR devices for businesses with other smart glasses spanning sophistication levels and use cases for enterprises.
Google Glass was announced by skydivers live streaming themselves from the AR device, launching themselves from a blimp, landing on the conference building and proceeding to bike to the stage where the Google Glass was. It was quite the reveal. However, the consumer version of Google Glass was discontinued – the second-edition enterprise version is still available – it showed the direction consumer augmented reality was going to become.
Microsoft got inspired by Magic Leap and Google and noticed an opportunity to deliver world-class AR to their enterprise customers. In any case, Microsoft became an integral part of normalizing augmented reality, especially for the enterprise market. Something they would build on in 2019 with the HoloLens 2, delivering a wider FoV, better comfort, and increased performance.
Likewise, a big-name brand within gaming needed to capitalize on the entertainment possibilities of augmented reality. One such brand was Pokémon GO getting both the old and young to experience AR despite it not being through glasses. HoloLens and Pokémon GO opened the sluice gates of AR to become mainstream.
What was needed was an application to explore the commercial possibilities of augmented reality: in comes IKEA Place. While this AR interior design app wasn’t the first on the market, Place had the global reach of IKEA, making everyone realize the power and opportunities of augmented reality for e-commerce.
Founded in 2016, RealWear released an AR device in 2017 called RealWear HMT-1; a smart glass tailor-made for remote experts in industrial environments. The novel feature of Foresight lets businesses personalize through ‘Policies’ to manage and create applications for the device. In 2021, RealWear followed up the HMT-1 with the successor Navigator 500, a lighter and more powerful industrial smart glass.
With the iPhone 12 Pro and newer models (plus iPads), the built-in Lidar sensor used for augmented reality enabled advanced 3D-scanning capabilities.
In essence, commercial AR applications such as IKEA Places, entertainment such as Pokémon GO, and social like Snapchat filters benefit from the AR innovation Apple is pushing, having 10,000 AR-enabled iOS apps from 7,000 developers by 2020.
With the advent of waveguide optics, AR devices will slim down and lose weight which will increase their appeal in western markets, similar to the popularity of smart glasses in Asia. This effect is predicted to be further exacerbated with the sophistication of Smart Cities and the Internet of Things. However, AR applications will focus on human approaches to their content. In a nutshell, AR will offer personalization, reciprocity, and interactivity for a wide range of commercial purposes, such as ‘Virtual Try-on’ in e-commerce.
Similarly, Google is said to tinker with a new set of smart glasses and an AR app store to boot. While Meta has extensive AR plans well into 2028. And Apple is about to release a premium mixed reality headset. Even smaller and disruptive mixed reality headsets, such as the crowd-funded and European Lynx R-1, will also enter AR markets soon.
Additionally, augmented reality will play an increasingly pivotal part in Industry 4.0 for its interaction and operability between the physical and the digital for front-line workers. Two manufacturers, Vuzix and RealWear – with software like Remote Eye and TeamViewer – are leading the charge for this fourth industrial revolution. Sure, other sectors will use AR to streamline processes, such as the health care industry and military training, but it will be in Industry 4.0 that we are likely to experience the widest adoption of enterprise AR.
Jakob Pii is Writer at VR Expert and currently lives in the UK. He started his career in VR gaming in 2015 and has stayed in XR since, from exposure therapy in VR to 360-degree video documentaries. He is fascinated by how emerging technologies change how we live, play and work.