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Most people have already heard about the big, new developments taking place in virtual reality after the $2 Billion Mark Zuckerberg invested in the Oculus Rift in 2014. What they might not have heard about yet is something called augmented reality. But it’s coming to our lives sooner than you might think.

What is augmented reality, and why haven’t I heard of it?

Augmented reality is the blending of the real and the computer generated into a single composite image. You can create, display, and interact with fully computer generated projections within your own physical reality. It has the potential to revolutionize everything from gaming, to commerce, medicine, and education. So why haven’t you heard of it before?

The simple reason is, the technology wasn’t quite there yet. Sure, the idea has been around for a long time, at least since the 70’s, but that relied on large, clunky machines and the results weren’t exactly convincing. Nintendo even took a dip into virtual reality in the 90’s with it’s Virtual Boy, which was a commercial failure. But as technology has progressed, the applications of VR and AR have as well. Today, most of us have a smartphone or tablet with us at all times which we can use to create augmented reality worlds miles ahead of what they were even just a few short years ago.

How are virtual reality and augmented reality different?

Virtual reality is a completely immersive experience. It generally requires a wearable headset, and gives you the perspective that you are inside a whole new environment with nothing of the real world mixed in. You could explore the surface of the moon, or climb to the top of Mt. Everest while sitting in your living room.

On the other hand, augmented reality only supplements what’s actually around you. It generally only requires a smartphone or tablet, and most of what you see in your screen is actually happening, however parts of it are enhanced or simulated.

For instance, imagine touring a museum with a full T-Rex skeleton on display. Visitors might want to know the T-Rex looked like when it was alive. With augmented reality, they could point their phone at the skeleton, and the bones would be transformed into a full living dinosaur. They could then explore it from all angles, and interact with it to get more information. They might even hear it roar.

How does augmented reality affect business?

Augmented reality has the potential to change the way customers interact with and buy products, and companies are already beginning to take advantage of it. In 2013 Ikea published a catalogue which allowed people to place virtual furniture inside their own home to see how it would look. Converse published an app that allows you to try on their different shoes, and American Apparel allows you to change the color of the clothes in their stores. Vespa allows you to design your own 3D scooter, and drive it around your table, and it’s even being used to teach people about recycling.

At the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the power of augmented reality was on full display. Qualcomm debuted it’s “Invisible Museum” with 5 seemingly empty pedestals which came alive when viewed through one of their tablets. You could then interact with the exhibits to take a tour of future cities, and even play chess against a virtual opponent.

Another display used Google’s new Project Tango technology to produce a “Digital Showroom” for automobiles. Using a tablet, users could display a car in front of themselves which they could customize according to their preferences. They could open it’s doors and explore the interior, push the buttons on the dashboard to interact with the car’s features, and even honk the horn.

With the seemingly endless possibilities of augmented reality, it’s not unlikely that it will soon be popping up all around us. Customers will be able to customize, visualize and interact with products right on their devices. They’ll design, try out, share, and purchase everything from clothes and jewelry to automobiles and furniture all without ever visiting a store. It’s about to revolutionize the way people see products.