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AR is like your phone: Soon you'll feel naked without it

Commentary: VR is here, but the true reality revolution is augmented.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 30: Microsoft employee Gillian Pennington demonstrates the Microsoft HoloLens augmented reality (AR) viewer during the 2016 Microsoft Build Developer Conference on March 30, 2016 in San Francisco, California. The Microsoft Build Developer Conference runs through April 1. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Remember life without your phone? No, neither do I. And in a few years, you'll feel the same way about augmented reality, or AR.

You've already had a taste of AR if you're one of the 500 million who downloaded Pokemon Go -- it's what made it possible to see a Charmander on your desk or a Dratini on your steering wheel.

AR's big break is brewing. Are you ready?

Sarah Tew/CNET

AR is different from VR (virtual reality) because it overlays information on top of your actual field of vision, rather than transporting you to a new world. VR can plunge you to the bottom of the ocean, but AR can turn the people around you into sea creatures, so you don't run into them as you move around.

More practically, it can superimpose information about the thing you're looking at -- for example, the phone or computer you're reading this story on right now. AR can tell you how many notifications you have waiting for you and how many hours until it's time to charge your battery.

While VR may be more thrilling, it's AR, whether on your phone or some kind of headpiece, that will be more useful in day-to-day life.

Here's how AR is going to take over our senses.

The potential is limitless

Let's strap on our hypothetical AR headset and hit the streets.

You'll be able to see how much that cafe charges for a cup of coffee without having to go in. Meeting a friend at a new bar? If you're lost, you can literally see step-by-step directions floating in front of you, with arrows lined on the ground pointing you the right way. If you're unsure about the weather, look to the skies and your headset will tell you the forecast for the next few hours. Now, you've met a friend and you like their top -- your AR device can tell you where you can get your own, and for what price.

"What will make, and is actually already making AR big, is the great ability to make everything more engaging," said Mirko Ferrari, head of business development at AR developer Inglobe. In a world blessed with AR, Ferrari says people will do a lot of interacting with buildings -- "whether they are homes, stores, hospitals or cultural attractions" -- with the flick of an eye.

There are also workplace applications, with an AR-based "smart helmet" for industrial workers already being designed by a company called Daqri. Suppose a worker is trying to fix a pipe. His boss, in another room but also wearing a smart visor, can add notes and directions that will appear in real-time over the worker's vision. That worker could then add a note to the pipe, such as "crack fixed here", which can then be seen by anyone working on it in the future.

"But wait," you may be thinking, "no matter how great AR is, I don't want to walk around with a bulky visor or headset." And you'd be right. Companies are already thinking far into the future. Samsung, for instance, in 2014 filed a patent for smart contact lenses that work with AR. Pairing with a phone, the South Korean electronics giant envisions you being able to make commands by blinking or simply looking. No headwear required.

Imagine living with all this instantaneous information. Compared to that neon future, the pre-AR world we're living in now is practically a primitive nightmare.

Or, if that's still too much of a stretch for you, think about your phone. If you aren't currently holding it, it's probably within arm's reach. Phones have essentially become part of the human anatomy, causing us anxiety if we're without them for too long. I predict that's what AR, with its otherworldly potential to change how we do everyday tasks, will become.

We're not there yet

So why isn't this AR nirvana, or nARvana, already upon us? Because there are problems. Namely, the technology has suffered multiple false starts.

In 2012, Google released a concept video for Google Glass, a spectacle-style AR headset. Showing off some of the futuristic technology outlined above, its unveiling was a legitimate "wow, we're living in the future" moment. Sadly, when Glass was released in 2013, it didn't make nearly the splash it should have.

"There was no ecosystem to support the evolution of the product," said Pavel Naiya, an analyst at Counterpoint Research. "It was breakthrough technology but way ahead of its time."

Plus, there were also understandably privacy concerns about glasses that could take pictures and record video.

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While the tech behind Google Glass was fascinating, there were never enough apps to take advantage of it.

Google Glass is now being repurposed for healthcare, manufacturing and energy industries, according to a WSJ report, and Google has done its best to scrub all remnants of Glass 1.0 from the internet.

Meanwhile, Microsoft last April brought out a developer's edition of its HoloLens AR headset. However, the $3,000 cost keeps it in the realm of designers, and the company has been tight-lipped about when we can expect to see the HoloLens on store shelves.

Then there's Magic Leap, which is the dark horse on the scene. Co-founder Rony Abovitz has promised big things, including technology that uses light sensors in your brain. But the project has had some issues, such as misleading concept videos, which oversold the product with awe-inspiring graphics, and rumours of underdeveloped technology.

Finally, the first phone with Google's Tango AR platform, the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro, was a thick, heavy dud with undeveloped apps and games. Not a racing start for Google's AR ambitions.

But the AR future is bright

So we don't have HoloLens headsets for regular Joes, and apps that really use AR are still few and far between. But we're still in the cocoon phase -- the revolutionary butterfly will blossom eventually. And Silicon Valley knows it.

Augmented reality was a big part of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's spiel at April's F8 conference. The company will use the tech, Zuck says, to "mix the digital and physical in new ways."

Apple also has its eyes on the prize, with CEO Tim Cook telling The Independent in February that AR is just as much a game changer as the iPhone was. Apple has yet to announce anything official, but rumours point to some AR functionality in the iPhone 8 and even to a pair of AR glasses.

Meanwhile, Microsoft seems to have learned from Google's mistakes, as signs point to the tech giant building an ecosystem: In March it announced 150 apps have already been developed. And the second phone to use Google's Tango AR platform, the Asus ZenFone AR, is a much slimmer, sexier model that at the very least will make advanced AR on a phone much more palatable to hold and use.

AR is the future, all it needs is a champion. Whether it's Google, Microsoft, Apple or a contender we don't know yet, some company will rise to the occasion and knock us into a very new, very augmented reality.