You are probably familiar with the term “virtual reality,” but you may not be familiar with “augmented realty.” Both of these concepts, along with a sister-term, “mediated reality,” are products of advanced computer technology and are already changing the way people interact with the world around them.

What is Augmented Reality?

If you have watched a televised football game recently, you have seen AR in action. Scores appear on the screen over the game. A virtual line across the field shows you how far it is to the next “first down.” According to Wikipedia, AR is a “live direct or indirect view of a physical, real world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video or GPS data.” Some systems even produce appropriate smell. The augmented data is generated in real time and “within semantic context.” The goal is to amplify the viewer’s perception or sensory experience. In contrast, virtual reality replaces the real world with a simulated one, and mediated reality often diminishes sensory detail.

How Does AR Work?

The concept is complex, but usually AR devices use computers, displays, sensor components and devices that can input the information, such as cameras. These things are available on smartphones and make the phones good channels for AR applications such as Snapchat. The information gleaned through the GPS or cameras, or through other sensory devices, is evaluated and superimposed over the real-world view.

Many different systems are used to produce AR. Head-mounted displays, for instance, are worn in a helmet or harness. They place virtual elements over the real world view of the wearer as he changes his field of vision. Time may be seemingly displayed in “thin air” as the user looks ahead. As the viewer looks at a historical building, its history may appear, or be broadcast over earphones. There are eyeglasses that show the route to a destination as the wearer walks. Developers are even working on contact lenses that will provide AR.

What Are Future Uses of AR?

Though it sounds like science fiction, there is a product already in existence that allows users to make mobile phone calls without removing the phones from their pockets. says the device projects a phone dial pad onto the user’s palm so that he can “dial” the number using special colored caps on his fingers. The product is called “Sixth Sense” and employs a smartphone, cameras, a small projector and a mirror. The colored finger caps that are used to manipulate the projected images can be replaced by specially-colored fingernail polish. “Sixth Sense” turns any surface, even a person, into a projection screen. The device has multiple practical uses. Someone grocery shopping may look at a can of soup, and the nutrition data, cost and even customer reviews will appear superimposed over the image.

Products are being developed that will enable a job-seeker to point his device, such as his smartphone, at a business and the application will tell him if the company is hiring. AR even has military uses. It is already assisting soldiers to locate routes as they travel through unfamiliar countryside. In the future, data from an AR application might give soldiers on reconnaissance blueprints of buildings superimposed over their field of vision, or project aerial views from drones onto their glasses to let them monitor enemy activity.

There are limitations to the applications at this time, and some drawbacks. Some people may become so reliant upon AR that they would prefer it to the real world environment. Still, with the advent of such technology, Augmented Reality gives users an opportunity to know the world around them and to create expanded realities that will change the way people interact with their environment.