Augmented Reality: History, Trends and Implications

Oliver Laas

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Oliver Laas is an Estonian philosopher and a junior lecturer of philosophy at Tallinn University. He has studied at the Estonian Academy of Arts (Printmaking, BA, 2009) and Tallinn University (Cultural Theory, MA, 2011; Philosophy, PhD). His main research interests include metaphysics, semiotics, information theory, logic, philosophy of technology and game studies.


Augmented reality combines real and virtual worlds, where computer-generated virtual objects are displayed as live images over a real background. Although the wider adoption of this trend only began in the last decade, the conceptual history of augmented reality refers back to the beginning of the last century. Below I will try to answer three questions: how did the idea of ​​augmented reality come about; what are the technological solutions that enable it and how can they be developed further; and what kind of ideological and social changes could these developments evoke?


The idea of ​​augmented reality first comes up at the beginning of the 20th century in L. Frank Baum’s book “The Master Key” where he describes glasses displaying a letter that best summarises the character of the passers-by on their forehead – “G” for good, “E” for evil, and so on. The first technological steps towards augmented reality were taken in the middle of the century. While Morton Heilig’s Sensorama – a cinema booth stimulating all the senses of its user – was the forerunner of both augmented and virtual reality, The Sword of Damocles by Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull with its glasses displaying a computer-generated environment to the user in real time, can be perceived as the precursor to the modern smart and virtual reality glasses. In 1982, Dan Reitan with his colleagues developed RADAR, the first interactive augmented reality system to be used in television for weather forecasting.

The term ‘augmented reality’ dates back to 1990. The scientist Tom Caudell, who worked for Boeing, used it to describe technology that combines computer graphics with real environments. The first augmented reality system, which aimed to support repair and maintenance work, was created at Columbia University in 1993. A year later, the first theatre piece using augmented reality, Dancing in Cyberspace, was introduced on stage. Four years later, the NFL used augmented reality for the first time to mark during a live broadcast the first contact of the ball on the field of play with a yellow line. A year later, NASA used the Hybrid Synthetic Vision augmented reality system to facilitate the navigation of the X-38.

The first portable augmented reality device was introduced in 2003. The earliest experiments in journalism and marketing date back to 2009, when readers could make Robert Downey Jr. move on the cover of the Esquire magazine by scanning it. The first small, augmented reality glasses by Google Glass reached the market in 2014. Originally intended for broad use, the product became the subject of public outrage, which was expressed among other things through neologisms such as ‘glasshole’, referring to the intrusions of privacy enabled by the glasses; for example, the secret recording of conversations. Despite this, the devices are still used in the manufacturing sector. In 2016, Microsoft launched the Hololens augmented reality glasses. In the same year, augmented reality also reached wider audiences thanks to the location-based mobile game Pokémon Go, is which players would catch virtual Pokémons displayed on the screen of a smart device but placed in real-world environments, to train them for battles with each other.


In general, we can currently distinguish two types of augmented reality technologies: ‘device-based augmented reality’ displays virtual objects on a phone or tablet screen on top of the live image from the camera, and ‘immersive augmented reality’, which surrounds the user with virtual objects located in a real environment, which are displayed on special glasses worn by the user. The aforementioned Pokémon Go is an example of device-based augmented reality, while Google Glass and Hololens are examples of immersive augmented reality.

Although the most common technological solutions use smart glasses or smart devices, there are also several alternatives that are currently being researched and developed. The first bionic contact lenses with built-in technology necessary for both image display and wireless internet connection were patented in 1999. However, the first prototype reached wider audiences only in 2020.

Another relevant technology that can contribute to the wider adoption of augmented reality in the near future is virtual retinal display, which allows images to be directly displayed on the retina of the user’s eye, projecting the images as if floating in the air in front of them. This technology was invented in 1986 by Kazuo Yoshinaka. In the intervening decades, several researchers and companies have further developed this technology. One of the more recent experimenters was Intel, which sold the technology they had developed to North in 2018, who have also been selling smart glasses based on this technology in the intervening years.


Augmented reality is used in many fields and its areas of use are expanding over time. For example, in archaeology, augmented reality is used for scientific purposes in fieldwork to locate 3D models of previously existing buildings in the present-day environment. Architects employ augmented reality both to visualise projects in the planning phase, as well as to market them to potential clients. In the art field, augmented reality is used in multimedia performances and installations. In medicine, augmented reality is used, for example during surgeries to display relevant information to doctors. In the military field, augmented reality is being tested to transmit tactical information to soldiers in the battlefield, and in aviation to train pilots, as well as to facilitate navigation.

When it comes to the cultural field, digital or virtual heritage should be pointed out as a separate area of use, which aims to communicate the appearance, meaning and importance of cultural artefacts and their creators through interactive and immersive digital media. The motivations behind creating virtual heritage are multiple, among them the preservation of culturally valuable objects and processes, not to mention the attractive forms of display they allow for audiences. One of the earliest examples was the virtual tour of Dudley Castle in England, launched in 1994, where a 3D reconstruction aimed to recreate the castle as it was in 1550. An early example of immersive augmented reality in the virtual heritage field was a project created by Columbia University that allowed users to witness a 3D model of the Bloomingdale Mental Hospital, which used to be located near the university. In the mid-2000s, the MIRA Lab created a virtual Pompeii using augmented reality technology. From the same period, we also have ARCHEOGUIDE, an augmented reality application used for organising excursions to cultural heritage sites that reconstructs existing ruins and displays additional information on them. An example of a device-based augmented reality application in the cultural heritage field could be CityViewAR, which recreates the buildings destroyed in the New Zealand earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 in the city of Christchurch to be viewed through a smartphone during urban strolls.


Considering the history, developments and areas of use mentioned above, I would like to point out two changes, one of them empirical and the other cognitive, that augmented reality along with other similar technologies could bring about in the future. As these changes are intertwined, I will examine them together.

It is often presumed that the virtual and real are somehow inherently different or opposing categories. In the academic world, similar views were more common in the 1980s and 1990s, yet in the last decade, this opposition has started to be rejected. The further development and broader use of augmented reality technologies could contribute to undermining this conceptual opposition. Instead of opposing, it might be wiser to talk of a continuum, with one end being the real environment without any computer-generated additions, and the other a completely computer-generated environment, while the in-between would consist of different types of mixed reality, among them also augmented reality. If the aforementioned technologies, as well as several others, should become more widely used, then in the future at least some people might start to live in mixed reality landscapes that contain both virtual and real objects, robots and artificial companions that all communicate with each other and operate side by side. One example of a similar landscape could be the New Port City from the franchise Ghost in the Shell. Therefore, the internet with the information it contains can become part of our landscape experience. If virtual heritage is added to the mix, this might bring about a change in the perception of cultural memory, which would have a more sensory presence in the surrounding environment from now on.

The development of the metaverse can also contribute to undermining the opposition between virtual and real. The metaverse is based on an idea from Neal Stephenson’s science fiction novel Snow Crash from 199,2 which describes it as the vision of the internet that would be a three-dimensional visual environment where its users move around and interact with each other through avatars. Today, the metaverse refers to an infrastructure of interconnected virtual worlds that can be accessed from different devices and that embodies both augmented and virtual reality. The history of the technologies on which the metaverse is based dates back to the late 1970s, when the first text-based virtual worlds inspired by The Lord of the Rings and the board game Dungeons and Dragons were created. The first virtual world known to wider audiences, Second Life, was, however, only launched in 2003. Yet, from the second half of the decade until today, there have been technological developments that pave the way for the creation of the metaverse as a network of decentralised virtual worlds. If at the moment, the metaverse is still more like a technological vision of the future, then the decision by Meta (formerly Facebook) to start developing it could attract the interest of other companies and speed up its development. However, there are several technological problems that have to be solved first, such as developing and constructing 5G networks, improving the resolution of screens and cameras, as well as enhancing cloud computing to increase the computing power available to users. If Mark Zuckerberg’s vision is to see it as an environment experienced through augmented reality that would adapt to the user’s demands, then the metaverse might lead to unprecedented privacy violations, as it would allow for a more comprehensive profiling of individuals than ever before. At the same time, a widespread adoption of metaverse would also undermine the common conceptions concerning the opposition of the virtual and real.

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