How ‘Pokemon Go’ is just the tip of augmented reality iceberg

Augmented reality still has low name recognition among consumers. But the immense popularity of the “Pokemon Go” smartphone app could help change that by shining light on a technology that is beginning to find wider use in everything from games to shopping to even warehouse design.

Augmented reality is different from virtual reality in that it remains rooted in the real reality. It overlays computer graphics onto the real world, augmenting what is seen when looking at scenery or people with superimposed digital images of objects.

NTT Docomo on Friday announced plans to develop a set of smart glasses that incorporate augmented reality, or AR. President Kazuhiro Yoshizawa explained that the Japanese mobile carrier is developing the AR gadget as a pair of glasses because of the safety risks of walking around looking at a smartphone. Wearing this headset, users could keep their eyes forward while operating the device.

Yoshizawa said the company could not offer a time frame for commercialization yet, but envisions the gadget being used for games that take positional information into account, and as a street guide for visitors to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

U.S. software giant Microsoft is also developing an AR headset, dubbed the HoloLens, which Japan Airlines has decided to use to train mechanics.

Goldman Sachs forecasts the global market for augmented and virtual reality combined to grow to $27.4 billion in 2020, with the overriding view that the market for augmented reality will grow faster than the market for virtual reality.

Augmented reality is not some futuristic technology, but something already at hand.

Consider the popular smartphone app Snapchat, or the rival Snow app — popular in Japan and made by a Naver subsidiary — that identifies people in pictures and overlays their faces with the ears and noses of dogs.

The Japanese arm of Ikea offers an app that lets people view the rooms in their homes through their smartphones with overlaid images of sofas, beds and other items from the Ikea catalog to see how the furniture would actually look in place. Some 400 Ikea items can be viewed this way, and more are added each time a new catalog is published.

Osaka-based apparel retailer Urban Research is developing an AR system so shoppers in their stores can look at a large LCD monitor and see how they would look wearing different clothes.

Industrial applications for augmented reality are also spreading.

In May, Canon released the latest version of its MREAL headset, which it describes as “a visualization tool for enterprise.”

Users of the MREAL include Daifuku, a developer of material handling systems. Daifuku is using the MREAL headset to design automated warehouse systems. The device allows designers to view equipment in their actual sizes in order to better evaluate specifications and safety features.

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