Who invented augmented reality isn’t exactly an age old question, but one that will need some answering anyway. First, though, we’ll need a definition, so we could better orient ourselves in the complex word of virtual-, augmented- and mixed reality. After all, we only want to tackle one of the similar-sounding terms and would hate to get mixed up in others.
According to the good ol’ Wikipedia, augmented reality (also known and further referred to as AR) is: “an interactive experience of a real-world environment where the objects that reside in the real-world are “augmented” by computer-generated perceptual information, sometimes across multiple sensory modalities.”
What this essentially means, is that AR technology adds layers of information over your perceived “real world”. A good example is Pokemon Go, which uses your phone’s camera to pop little colourful pocket monsters into your day-to-day commute.
Now, with the what out of the way, we can resume with the who.
There isn’t much I remember from middle school, and while I’d love to go into a detailed rant about the failings of the education system, I do actually have a point to make here. Namely that, the only thing I do remember is that whenever my science teachers would tell us about famous scientists and their contributions, they’d all echo the same sentiment: revolutionary ideas never belong to just one (wo)man.
So, essentially, the question of who invented augmented reality cannot be boiled down to just a name and a date. As with everything, it was a process of innovation that led us to where we are now, with technological marvels at our fingertips.
For those of you here for a school project or something of similar nature – don’t worry, I’ll highlight the important bits. Also, godspeed with whatever you’re working on!
All Roads Lead To Art
I am first going to dive into a topic that might seem totally unrelated to AR – literature. But bear with me for a second.
You see, the first instance of AR wasn’t found in technology, but in writing. The book in question is called The Master Key (1901) and was penned by L. Frank Baum, who is famous for his Wizard of Oz series. The man is also known for predicting many other inventions that are commonplace today, such as television and laptops.
The Master Key centers around a guy named Robert who summons something called a Demon of Electricity. Ominous stuff. That is until the Electrical Demon starts offering our dude Rob gifts and making the readers wonder if they shouldn’t summon themselves an electrical sugar daddy. Either way, one of the gifts Rob receives is a pair of glasses called the “Character Marker”, which allows Rob to see people’s personalities on their foreheads.
For those interested, the book ends with Rob giving back all of the futuristic contraptions offered to him by the Demon, saying that humanity is not ready for such technology yet and that the Demon should return and bestow these marvels on human kind when the time is right.
There’s an analysis of the possibility of such a device creating a modern dystopia in there, but that’s not why we’re here. For all intents and purposes, the “Character Maker” is the first mention of Augmented Reality in fiction, but of course it isn’t called that in the book.
Augmented Reality First appearances and the term
From there on, instances of Augmented Reality started moving towards real world applications, rather than just examples in books of fiction. For example, in 1975, American computer artist Myron Krueger created something called the VIDEOPLACE – an augmented reality laboratory where people could interact with their artificial surroundings without the use of goggles or gloves. Krueger ended up basing his book Artificial Reality on the findings from his lab.
Five years later, in 1980, Canadian inventor Steve Mann invented the term and worked on wearable computing. Wearable computing, as he puts it himself, is: “the study or practice of inventing, designing, building, or using miniature body-borne computational and sensory devices.” (The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer interaction 2nd Edition, Chapter 23, Steve Man). As the father of wearable computing, we can thank Mann for devices like smart glasses and smart watches.
Of course, we cannot speak of any of the aforementioned inventions as augmented reality. The term was coined no sooner than 1990 by Tom Caudell, though mostly for the purpose of AR tech used by aircraft electricians. Now it’s grown to mean a new world of technology, though.
All this aside, though, the first true leap forward in augmented reality comes in the early 1990s when virtual fixtures were developed by Louis Rosenberg, an American inventor, in the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. A virtual fixture is defined as a AR overlay, which helps improve human performance, but because rendering 3D images wasn’t too easy to accomplish back in the day, they used robots to present the AR instead, which is pretty neat, but also think about that we had better functioning robots than 3D image rendering in the 1990s.
Between the 1990s and now, many new AR inventions have seen the light, such as numerous Augmented Reality games like Quake and the aforementioned Pokemon Go and, of course, smart glasses such as Google Glass.
All the inventors listed above have contributed into the possibility of these new technologies, and having to choose one of them as the sole inventor of augmented reality would be impossible. So yes, the answer to who invented AR is a list of names. And even so, the list I’ve provided here isn’t set in stone as there have been many AR-like inventions over the years.
The only thing that is set in stone is that we will see many more life-changing technological developments in the future, since it seems that the Demon of Electricity has finally deemed humankind ready for them.