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What is AR? Augmented reality explained

By Tom Morgan

What is augmented reality, and could it overtake virtual reality in the race for future tech? We explain how AR works and how it could become a fundamental part of our daily lives.

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Augmented-reality apps are transforming the ways in which we interact with our smartphones, superimposing virtual images on to our real-world surroundings.

Interest in augmented reality (AR) surged after Apple announced it would be supporting the feature as part of its major iOS 11 update for iPhone and iPad. If you're an Android owner you can still experience it too, as the number of AR apps on the Google Play Store continues to grow.

Our guide to augmented reality explains how this developing technology can entertain you and also prove genuinely useful. Keep scrolling to find out more, and to see how AR differs from VR (virtual reality).

Find out how to try VR free on the iPhone and Android.

What is augmented reality? 

Augmented reality places a virtual object in a real environment, with that object visible through the display of your smartphone or tablet. These objects can look very lifelike, changing as you move around them or get closer or further away, just as if they were actually there. 

There are lots of applications where this technology can come in useful, such as placing furniture in a room or 'painting' the walls before you decorate. It's becoming more commonly used for GPS navigation in high-end cars, and broader applications includes medical training, construction and repair.

There are two main types of augmented reality: marker-based and markerless.

Marker-based AR

This system uses a visual marker to function – a QR code, for example. Your phone's camera picks up on the position of the QR code and replaces that symbol with an object.

Markerless AR

Markerless AR is now fairly common. The system uses the accelerometer inside your mobile phone to determine how your movements should change the size and appearance of an object on your screen. It runs more smoothly on modern smartphones with more processing power.

AR vs VR: what's the difference? 

Unlike augmented reality, a virtual-reality experience is all contained in an enclosed space. You'll need to wear a headset to experience a VR app, but you won't see anything unfolding in from of you – it's set in a virtual world instead. In other words, VR uses a digital environment, whereas AR overlays virtual objects to real-world environments.

You don't need to spend a fortune to try out virtual reality for yourself. Head over to our full range of VR headset reviews to get started – we've tried models as cheap as £15.

How to experience AR on iOS and Android 

Trying augmented reality for yourself is as simple as finding an AR app that interests you and hitting the 'download' button.

AR apps works on both iOS and Android, but remember that modern smartphones will cope better.

Most smartphones with a rear camera are compatible with AR apps, but the models we've rounded up below offer a better experience thanks to high-end cameras and speedy processors.

AR-compatible smartphones

Google Pixel 2 XL

Test score %

£350.00
Reviewed

Google has released several 'AR sticker packs' for the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, which lets you take memorable selfies with virtual characters and objects. Note that you need Android Oreo to use them.

Huawei P20 Pro

Test score %

£530.00
Reviewed

Rocking the world's first triple camera smartphone setup, the Huawei P20 Pro combines a 40Mp Light Fusion sensor, a 20Mp black-and-white lens, and an 8Mp colour sensor. A speedy processor should make it well-suited to augmented reality.

Apple iPhone X

Test score %

£749.00
Reviewed

Apple says that the iPhone X has been 'custom-tuned with cameras that are great for shooting in low light and at 60-fps video - the perfect speed for augmented reality applications'. See how it fares in our full review.

The best AR apps for 2018 

Fancy trying augmented reality but don't know where to get started? Below, we've rounded up a selection of AR apps that do a good job of showing what the technology is capable of.

Ikea Place – for shopping (iOS, Android)

Ikea's AR app aims to make it easier for you to visualise a product in your home. You select a piece of furniture through the app, and then point your smartphone camera at an empty space in your living room. The product will magically appear in that space on your display, helping you to get a sense of how it will look if you decide to buy it.

Google Translate – for abroad (iOS, Android)

If you're on a holiday abroad and find yourself trying to make sense of the local signs or restaurant menus, Google Translate can lend a helping hand.

Thanks to AR, you don't have to waste time manually typing in phrases on the app. Instead, point your smartphone camera at some text you want the app to translate, and wait for it to generate the English version in real time. You can download language packs to speed up the process, as it means you won't need an internet connection to get results. 

AR Measurekit – for DIY (iOS)

Your smartphone can double as an effective tape measure thanks to AR.

Download Measurekit and you'll be able to measure real-world objects and spaces using the iPhone or iPad's camera. There are nine separate tools bundled into the app, including Ruler (measure straight lines), Trajectory (measure by 'drawing'), Marker Pin (measure distance from fixed points) and Cube (visualize how big something is).

This ruler app is only available on iOS, but there are plenty of similar apps on Android. ARuler - AR Ruler app and Floorplanner is a popular choice.

Holo – for fun (iOS, Android)

With the Holo app, you can share creative pictures with friends and family by adding holograms of real people and animals into your world.

There are lots of categories to explore, including characters, celebrities, athletes, musicians and comedians. New characters and objects are added to the app on a regular basis.

Fancy giving Holo a try? You'll need an iPhone 6S or later that's running on iOS 11.

How to find more apps and games that use AR

There are plenty of other experiences to be had with AR – and plenty of other apps available to try out.

Simply search for 'ar' in the Google Play or Apple App Store. Each has a large library of augmented-reality apps you can browse through and download, many of which are free.

Your experience using augmented reality will ultimately be affected by the age of your smartphone or tablet. Newer gadgets are more powerful and equipped with cameras that serve up loads of detail.

To see which smartphones have whizzed through our lab tests, see our range of Best Buy smartphones.

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