What is Augmented Reality?
Augmented reality (AR) is an experience where designers enhance parts of users’ physical world with computer-generated input. Designers create inputs—ranging from sound to video, to graphics to GPS overlays and more—in digital content which responds in real time to changes in the user’s environment, typically movement.
See the differences between Augmented, Virtual and Mixed Reality here.
Augmented reality has science-fiction roots dating to 1901. However, Thomas Caudell described the term as a technology only in 1990 while designing to help Boeing workers visualize intricate aircraft systems. A major advance came in 1992 with Louis Rosenberg’s complex Virtual Fixtures AR system for the US Air Force. AR releases followed in the consumer world, most notably the ARQuake game (2000) and the design tool ARToolkit (2009). The 2010s witnessed a technological explosion—for example, with Microsoft’s HoloLens in 2015—that stretched beyond AR in the classical sense, while AR software itself became increasingly sophisticated, popular and affordable.
Under the umbrella term extended reality (XR), AR differs from virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR). Some confusion exists, notably between AR and MR. Especially amid the 2020s’ technology boom, considerable debate continues about what each term covers. In user experience (UX) design, you have:
- AR—You design for digital elements to appear over real-world views, sometimes with limited interactivity between them, often via smartphones. Examples include Apple’s ARKit and Android’s ARCore (developer kits), the Pokémon Go game.
- VR—You design immersive experiences that isolate users from the real world, typically via headset devices. Examples include PSVR for gaming, Oculus and Google Cardboard, where users can explore, e.g., Stonehenge using headset-mounted smartphones.
- MR—You design to combine AR and VR elements so digital objects can interact with the real world; therefore, you design elements that are anchored to a real environment. Examples include Magic Leap and HoloLens, which users can use, e.g., to learn more directly how to fix items.
Partly because of the slight overlap regarding interactivity, brands sometimes use AR interchangeably with MR. “Augmented reality” remains popular—despite the point that the original sense of AR design is overlaying digital elements upon real-world views: e.g., GPS filters/overlays on smartphone screens so users can find directions from street views. So, digital elements are merely superimposed on real-world views, not anchored directly to them: The computer-generated content can’t interact with the real-world elements users see—unlike in MR. The HoloLens is MR, for instance, because it interprets the space in a room and combines digital objects with the user’s physical environment.
AR’s Expanding Appeal and Potential
AR designers made huge strides in the 2010s—a decade full of invaluable AR lessons and examples while the required sensors became cheaper. Pokémon GO is noteworthy, a GPS-oriented app that “inserts” Pokémon characters into users’ environments so users can find and capture them on device screens. Google’s AR stickers are another prime example; users drop realistic images into their camera shots. Users find AR particularly appealing for its entertainment value. Still, AR’s mainstream future appears assured across a wide range of applications, including education inside museums. With AR applications, you can bring experiences closer to users in their own environments through designs that are more directly engaging, personalized and—indeed—fun.
“Augmented reality is going to change everything.”
— Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO
How to Take Digitalized Steps in the Analogue World
You have numerous design considerations, namely:
- Safety—Remember users’ real-world contexts; don’t distract/mislead them into danger.
- Overkill—Beware of drowning users’ senses with meaningless data; keep experiences contextualized.
- Environment—Unlike desktop experiences, AR happens anywhere. So, aim primarily for users’ contexts regarding whether they’re outdoors/indoors and moving/static. Whatever their setting, users expect pleasurable, user-friendly experiences. AR UX’s Rob Manson stipulates user scenarios:
- Public—interacting with software, using the entire body
- Personal—using smartphones in public spaces
- Intimate—sitting, using a desktop
- Private—using a wearable
- Comfort—Make comfortable designs to prevent physical strains and reduce cognitive load.
- Security—AR data is rich; so, design to ensure users’ data is secure.
To get started with AR design, you should:
- Familiarize yourself with AR terminology and a new form of information architecture.
- Constantly ask “Where are users?” and how they’ll apply and adopt your design.
- Remember physical limitations—users hold devices longer while seated, etc.
- Make interfaces automatic, so users needn’t prompt with commands. Consider voice controls.
- Use AR-software-creating resources optimally (e.g., Apple’s ARKit).
- Offer easy onboarding.
- Provide clues and maximum predictability.
- Prioritize screen real estate.
- Design for accessibility.
- Design animations where you consider how frame rates and processing power impact on device compatibility.
- Ensure your design interprets and responds to users’ head movements and body gestures dynamically, so users can act intuitively and freely without giving commands.
Ultimately, understand what users—in various contexts—expect before you try to meet the experience demands. Do user testing that covers all feasible conditions (lighting, weather, etc.).
Learn More about Augmented Reality
Learn how to design your own AR experiences with our course: https://www.interaction-design.org/courses/how-to-design-for-augmented-and-virtual-reality
Find some vital AR considerations here: https://blog.prototypr.io/designing-for-ar-b276c8251c20
A specialist’s detailed take on the AR trend: https://theblog.adobe.com/ux-design-augmented-reality-tips-insights-ar-pro-bobby-gill/
Extra tips on designing AR experiences: https://uxdesign.cc/the-principles-of-good-user-experience-design-for-augmented-reality-d8e22777aabd
You can see Apple’s guidelines for designing for AR here: https://developer.apple.com/ios/human-interface-guidelines/technologies/augmented-reality/
Read more about AR-MR-VR differences here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2018/02/02/the-difference-between-virtual-reality-augmented-reality-and-mixed-reality/#86149ab2d07c