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What is augmented reality?

Augmented reality -- often stylized as AR -- is the act of superimposing a computer-generated image into the "real world," usually via a smartphone camera and the screen. People often compare AR to VR -- or virtual reality. Virtual reality, however, is the act of creating a fully simulated environment that a user can "step into."

Current examples of augmented reality are games like Pokemon Go, which features an AR mode that allows users to hunt, photograph, and catch Pokemon via their smartphone's camera. Social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat use augmented reality filters to encourage users to share pictures and videos.

Apps like Measure are also considered AR based Apps.

Some retailers allow users to preview items in their homes via augmented reality as well.


Introduced in WWDC 2017, ARKit is Apple's software development kit that enables app developers to incorporate augmented reality into their apps. ARKit handles many of the tough tasks associated with AR, including detecting movement and the local environment, simplifying the process for developers to place virtual objects in an everyday scene.

In iOS 13, ARKit 3 was released. ARKit 3 recieved many notable upgrades over its predacessor. New features included the introduction of people occlusion, or the ability to place objects behind or in front of users as needed. It also enabled more face track multiple faces, and the ability to place digital objects into complex environments.

Apple's possible AR headset or glasses

A patent mockup of Apple AR glasses A patent mockup of Apple AR glasses

Apple has been rumored to be working on an augmented reality headset or smart glasses for some time and has used considerable resources in the field of AR and VR. While Apple has so far declined to publicly offer details of when to expect AR-equipped head-mounted hardware in the future if at all, it is allegedly offering up timelines to employees.

Patents have surfaced as well, suggesting that Apple may be in the early stages of planning how such devices are going to work.

In US patent number 20190349662, Apple describes an AR headset "having device-mount audio mode."

The design suggests a headset with another device like an iPhone mounted in front of the user's eyes. Similar headsets have existed for some time, with Google Cardboard being a notable example.

"[The headset can be] configured to: determine whether the mobile device is mounted on a head-mounted display (HMD) mount," says the patent, "[then] transmit an audio signal from the device processor to a wireless headphone; and change an audio mode of one or more of the mobile device or the wireless headphone."

So when the iPhone is mounted in the headset, the audio can be automatically routed to that headset's speakers. When it isn't, the iPhone's speakers are used instead.

Another patent, 20190285897, suggests that Apple may be working on a higher-end AR headset that features holographic elements. The patent describes a complex system for displaying an image for the user in an AR headset. 

Rather than using a display showing a composite view of the environment and virtual content, Apple proposes the use of a "reflective holographic combiner" to serve the same purpose, reflecting light for the AR elements while at the same time passing through environmental light.

The benefits of a holographic system are many, but the most significant improvement would likely be the reduction of unpleasant side effects. Both VR and AR have been shown to cause eye strain, headaches, and occasionally nausea. 

The holographic elements would allow Apple to correct for depth, seamlessly integrating the projections into a user's field of view. By providing integration, it would help to prevent the usual level of discomfort wearers feel when using similar headsets. 

Apple's iRing

Patent mockup of a smart ring with camera Patent mockup of a smart ring with camera

Patent number 20190346938 covers a "finger-mounted device with fabric."

Previous patents have shown Apple describing various systems using gloves or gloves with rings on several fingers to detect motion; this filing proposes that one smart ring could provide the necessary motion information.

"The use of wearable devices to gather input for controlling electronic equipment can pose challenges," says this patent. "If care is not taken, a device such as a glove may affect the ability of a user to feel objects in the user's surroundings, may be uncomfortable to use, or may not gather suitable input from the user."

The ring could contain "components such as force sensors, accelerometers, and other sensors and for haptic output devices."

"During operation, a user may wear the finger mounted units on the tips of the user's fingers while interacting with external objects," it continues.

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