Ultimate guide: What is augmented reality (AR)?

Augmented reality will have one of its most dominant years in 2023. As its popularity spreads into new industries every day, both big and small brands are eagerly diving into the technology.

With this in mind, we thought we better provide you with an ultimate AR guide explaining augmented reality, what it’s used for, examples of AR, and much more. Our guide to AR is the culmination of years of experience within the augmented reality industry. We have witnessed first-hand how augmented reality has transformed various industries, and as we enter 2023 and beyond, you can expect to see a lot more AR.

Understanding the significance of this technology, we have curated an ultimate AR guide that serves as a comprehensive resource for anyone seeking knowledge about augmented reality. Drawing upon our extensive experience in the industry, we have meticulously crafted this guide to provide valuable insights into the essence of augmented reality, its multitude of applications, and real-world examples that showcase its capabilities.

Our AR guide goes beyond the surface level, delving into the intricacies of this technology and shedding light on the various ways it can be harnessed to enhance customer experiences, streamline operations, and drive business growth. Whether you are a marketer looking to create immersive brand campaigns, an educator seeking innovative teaching tools, or an entrepreneur exploring new avenues for product visualisation, our augmented reality guide is designed to equip you with the knowledge and inspiration needed to leverage augmented reality to its fullest potential.

Our ultimate guide to augmented reality covers:

Now, let’s get into the ultimate AR guide!

What is augmented reality?

So, what is augmented reality? Probably best that we tell you before you go any further. Augmented reality is defined as technology that integrates the physical and virtual worlds by allowing digital images and information to be displayed in a physical environment. Bit of a mouthful, in other words, AR allows users to see the real world, with digital objects projected onto it.

Augmented reality offers characteristics that are like no other technology, the technology sits somewhere between virtual reality (VR) and the physical world. As AR becomes more sophisticated and accessible, its applications are growing wider, from gaming and entertainment to industrial and medical uses. AR is reaching far behind its old stereotypical use for video games, which was never really its only use anyway.

Defining augmented reality: a brief history

A critical part of this AR guide is understanding the history of the technology. Despite being a seemingly new concept to many, AR is quite the opposite. Although we can’t precisely pinpoint its first use, people began using the term around 1990 and it saw accelerated use and developments in technology from then. Here is the past, present and future of augmented reality:

Augmented reality: early applications

1992: Many people consider Louis Rosenberg’s Virtual Fixtures to be the first ‘real-use’ of AR, although this is strongly debated. The AR system was developed for the US Air Force Pilots’ training and required users to wear a full upper-body exoskeleton and binocular magnifiers to interact with virtual overlays and see robotic arms in place of their own.

A man wearing an AR exoskeleton on his arms and binoculars to control 'virtual fixtures'.

1994: In 1994, people began to stretch the applications of augmented reality, and it saw its first appearance in the theatre industry. In “Dancing in Cyberspace,” dancers and acrobats engaged and performed around virtual objects that were projected on stage in real-time.

1998: Sportsvision developed and implemented the virtual 1st & Ten systems for the NFL, which allows television watchers to follow games at home more easily by inserting augmented reality graphical elements on the field of play as if they were there. Best known for displaying a yellow first-down line.

2011: Fast-forwarding significantly to the release of the iPhone 4 in 2011, the first iPhone that had the capabilities to run AR. Engine Creative, the team behind REYDAR, leapt early on the AR marketing projects, and worked with Top Gear magazine to create the world’s first AR magazine.

A person holding up a Top Gear magazine with AR features being showcased.

Augmented reality: the present

2016: Okay we know this is still in the past, but this is when AR picked up the pace and began to shape into what it is today. 2016 saw the release of the mobile game Pokémon GO. The popularity and success of this game were huge for AR and showed us that even though gaming and AR went hand in hand, its capabilities and purpose could reach far beyond this.

2017: IKEA Place is released. Although this wasn’t the first AR interior design app, Place had to power and brand to reach a global audience, showcasing its strength and leading to other industries wanting a piece of the AR pie.

2017 – 2020: From here, applications came thick and fast and the power of web-based AR and the release of LiDAR scanners on iPhone 12’s meant that AR was now more powerful, useful, and accessible to wider audiences.

Augmented reality has experienced consistent changes since its first introduction, but as an AR agency REYDAR has always been able to adapt to these changes, and with over a decade of experience working with augmented reality, we are the perfect partner. If you have any augmented reality questions or have a project in mind, get in touch with us today.


The future of augmented reality

Audiences widely believe AR glasses will shape the future of augmented reality. But even with examples like Microsoft’s HoloLens and rumours of Apple’s smart glasses, the exact path AR will take is uncertain.

A woman wearing a blue shirt with a HoloLens 2 headset on interacting with AR.

AR advancements are poised to have a major impact in the next decade with players like Google and Meta entering the arena and the buzz around the ‘metaverse’ increasing. While there is still much to be done to bring AR products and concepts to life, the investments made by both big and small companies in figuring out the future of AR tech is highly encouraging for the industry. Check out our future predictions for augmented reality here.

What are the differences between augmented reality and virtual reality (VR)?

The main difference between augmented and virtual reality is that whilst virtual reality completely replaces the physical world with a digital environment, AR adds digital content to the real world. They both have unique characteristics and offer superior benefits in different situations and applications.

An icon on the left representing AR and one on the right for VR with 'VS' written between them.

AR is best suited for applications that require interactions with the physical world whilst VR is best suited for entirely digital experiences. For example, VR could be used by healthcare professionals in training to simulate real-life situations such as being in an operating theatre, whereas augmented reality could be used to showcase a digital live performance in a physical space, much like Gorillaz latest AR experience. Applications are almost limitless for both technologies, whilst they can both be applied to many situations, there may be a more favourable, based on purpose, audience and objectives.

Whilst offering some similar characteristics, they also offer unique characteristics. Virtual reality replaces your reality, whilst AR adds to it. Although VR could be considered more immersive, and high-end technology is more accessible than high-end AR tech, augmented reality is far more accessible to the global population and has far more applications thanks to its increased flexibility.

So, how does augmented reality work?

Now we have defined augmented reality and provided a brief history, let’s dive into how augmented reality actually works.

AR works by overlaying digital sensory elements on top of real-world environments using hardware such as cameras, sensors, and displays. The user’s hardware can detect and interpret the environment around them and display digital content on their device’s screen in real-time. This technology uses a combination of GPS, image recognition, computer vision, and machine learning to enable this interaction. Usually working something like this:

A diagram that explains how augmented reality works in a simple 3 step process.

Augmented reality elements could be any digital object or information that is overlayed on top of your actual reality. Some types of augmented reality elements can include 3D models, information overlays, spatial mapping, or simulations. AR elements truly depend on the application. For example, augmented reality elements for an eCommerce store would likely be their products in the form of 3D models, whereas in a grocery store, it could be information overlays displaying nutritional information.

There are two main types of AR, marker-based and markerless AR. The names themselves are pretty self-explanatory, but here is a detailed explanation:

Marker-based AR

Marker-based augmented reality uses a camera to detect and track a specific image or pattern (such as a magazine or a playing card) in the real world and overlays digital content on top of it. The marker acts as a reference point for the AR experience, this allows the content to remain in a fixed position relative to the marker whilst the camera (or the person controlling it) moves around it.

The creators of REYDAR, Engine Creative, were one of the early adopters of AR solutions and had the chance very early on to work on some marker-based AR projects. One of the earliest marker-based AR projects we worked on was for The Ting Tings, Sounds From Nowheresville album. Check it out below.

Marker-based AR was at one point, groundbreaking, but as the technology has developed, and become more sophisticated and powerful, the limitations of marker-based AR soon became clear. The technology can mostly only be used with a smart device or tablet, and often, users would also have to download an app to experience the content. Although a decade or so ago this wouldn’t have sounded abnormal, today’s digitally impatient consumers simply would not bother.

Markerless AR 

As you’ve probably guessed, markerless augmented reality does not require the use of a specific image or pattern like its counterpart. Markerless AR relies much more on the power of a device’s technology as it works by using cameras and sensors (such as GPS, compass, and accelerometer) to detect and track the user’s environment in real-time to project digital content on it.

Markerless AR offers far more freedom than mark-based AR and allows users to experience augmented reality in almost any space, from any angle, with free movement, as long as the environment can be read correctly. Developing markerless AR is undoubtedly complex, but is eclipsing marker-based AR as the preferred choice thanks to its accessibility, ease of use and flexibility. Try out a REYDAR 3D AR viewer below to try out some markerless AR for yourself:


What hardware is needed to use augmented reality technology?

The hardware that is required to experience AR entirely depends upon the application. But in general, most augmented reality applications will require a device with a camera, sensors, and a display.

The most common and accessible AR devices are smartphones and tablets, but some applications may require special hardware, including head-mounted displays and controllers, but this all depends on intended use and application.

App-based AR vs web-based AR (webAR)

Despite fancy high-tech headsets and complex AR software being released almost every week, the accessibility level is extremely low. But what devices do 6.92 billion people globally have access to? Smartphones.

There are two forms of AR on smartphones, app and web-based. App-based AR and webAR have both made augmented reality more accessible to wider audiences, and both boast powerful benefits, but there are some key differences between the two.

App-based AR

As the name indicates, app-based AR refers to the use of AR technology through mobile applications (like Pokemon GO and IKEA Place). App-based AR is available via downloaded apps and provides a highly immersive augmented reality experience, generally offering more comprehensive tracking and placement of digital objects in rendered environments.

Three smartphones side-by-side showcasing three unique AR apps.

Apps can deliver more sophisticated content opportunities, higher quality 3D objects and increased functionality compared to WebAR, however, is not as accessible.

Positives of app-based AR include:

  • Convenient access through smartphones
  • Immersive and interactive experiences
  • Versatility in various industries, including entertainment and education
  • Low cost and often free for users to download
  • Capability to be updated with powerful features
  • Increased engagement and user satisfaction

Negatives of app-based AR include:

  • Limited availability to those with compatible devices
  • Requirements for storage space on the device
  • High development and maintenance costs for businesses
  • Disrupts the user journey due to app download
  • Difficulty integrating it into other platforms


WebAR breaks the cycle of needing to download an app to your device before experiencing AR. Most individuals do not want to take the time to download yet another app on their already saturated device, webAR requires no downloads and can be accessed on pretty much any device, from anywhere, at any time.

WebAR is accessible through a web browser instead of an application, thanks to its convenience and the frictionless AR journey, webAR has generated huge demand from companies looking to engage their audiences on a new level.

Positives of webAR include:

  • Simplistic to manage and update
  • Boosts buyer confidence
  • Wide accessibility
  • Easily integrated into websites or other platforms
  • Reduced costs in comparison to app-based AR when developing and maintaining
  • Incredibly flexible and scalable
  • Ease of use

Negatives of webAR:

  • Not as powerful as app-based AR
  • Reliant on internet connections
  • Perform better on newer devices

Depending on the augmented reality project or solution in mind, will depend upon which type of AR is required. For example, if you want your customers to be able to view your products on your website pages in 3D and AR, then web-based AR would be the most beneficial. Whereas, if you wanted a configuration tool, like our work with Smart Garden, then a powerful app would be the most suited option.


Augmented reality applications and examples

We hope that we have broken the stereotype that augmented reality is for more than just catching Pokemon and giving something a gimmick. But hey, if not we will have one more go. The technology is incredibly flexible, AR can be used for basically everything. Here we will explore some of the most popular applications and some real-world examples.

AR in retail & eCommerce

Augmented reality has been finding increased use in retail and eCommerce in recent years. AR bridges the gap between in-store shopping experiences and online. And despite returning to near enough normalcy since the Covid-19 pandemic, there had been a permanent change in shopping habits. More than 1 in 4 now complete most of their shopping online, despite highstreets reopening, an 18% increase compared to pre-pandemic.

While AR can’t make the furniture decisions for you, it certainly can give you a much better idea of what it might look like in your home. We were lucky enough to witness the power of AR in eCommerce first-hand in 2018 when we partnered with the UK’s top retailer, Argos, to create their first AR app. The app gave users the power to preview furniture items in their own homes – it was pretty cool. Take a peek!

You don’t even need to go to physical stores to try on makeup anymore. L’Oréal got in early in 2018 when they acquired AR try-on tech company ModiFace. By using ModiFace’s AR technology, L’Oreal has transformed the consumer experience by offering virtual makeup and hair colour try-ons, skin diagnosis, and skin shade assessments. AR technology is breaking down purchase barriers, making it easier than ever for customers to make purchase decisions.


With AR being as powerful as it is, it would be a shame to not utilise it to aid in education. Although not used by the masses (just yet), AR in education is being used by some to provide more immersive and interactive learning experiences for students of all ages.

By using AR, teachers can now bring 3D models, animates and other unique visuals into the classroom to make learning come to life. This can help make learning more engaging, memorable and effective. Previous barriers are broken thanks to AR in learning, pupils can now experience virtual field trips without even leaving the classroom. Not only does this save on time and resources (you’re welcome schools) but also provides a safe yet new environment for students to learn in.

One of the most popular examples comes from Google, Google Expeditions enables users to see 3D objects in the classroom, with visuals and exercises for a variety of subjects, including sciences and technology, arts, geography and natural history.

Another admired educational AR example is an app titled “Element 4D”, which is aimed at making learning chemistry fun… as fun as possible. The app allows students to find the atomic weight, chemical elements, the reaction between two chemicals and the names all by simply using paper cubes that can be printed off and made, that does sound fun actually!


Some of the most promising and necessary applications for AR come within the healthcare industry. But how exactly can AR help the healthcare sector? Well, probably, much more than your think. Today, medical students, doctors and nurses are all using AR to learn or rehearse medical procedures and practices.

A surgeon wearing PPE and a HoloLens 2 headset in an operating theatre.

AR technology is being used in surgical planning, medical imaging, and patient education, making it easier for medical staff to analyse, inspect and access data during their day-to-day operations. For example, AR medical imaging is being used in surgery to convert CT scans into a 3D map for the surgeon to see either on-screen or even as a digital overlay on the patient’s body.

AR is guaranteed to support doctors, nurses, and other medical staff in the coming years and beyond. There is even a technology to show a patient’s veins above their skin for easier injections or other procedures. AccuVein developed this device and it has already proven results, including a 39% reduction in pain, a 92% first-attempt success rate and a 45% decrease in escalation calls.


People love to hate marketing but are still engaged when it is executed right. Augmented reality’s capabilities to totally transform physical experiences and even create new one, almost makes you think it was made for marketing.

Companies like IKEA, Netflix, and Nike have all dipped their toes into the AR pool to try and wow audiences by allowing them to either virtually try their products or engage in an interactive experience.

Augmented reality has even crept its way into advertisements. National Geographic allowed commuters in a train station to ‘Step into the World of National Geographic” and see themselves stepping into some amazing scenes that nature has to offer using AR technology and large digital screens. Pepsi transformed a bus shelter on New Oxford Street into a display window that augmented “unbelievable” scenarios into the real world. Bespoke 2D and 3D assets were integrated into a live camera feed of the street ahead to showcase UFOs, tigers and even robots to the mind-blown passers-by. The campaign went viral, generating millions of views and being shared absolutely everywhere at the time.


From video games to live sports and stage shows, augmented reality is starting to dominate them all. The most notable and almost instantly recognisable is one we mentioned earlier, Pokemon GO. This groundbreaking mobile app genuinely nearly broke the ground thanks to the amount of Pokemon-playing zombies walking around the streets on its initial release. But seriously, the game achieved massive reach to a global audience, with over 232 million players in just 2016, it provided mass exposure to how powerful and engaging augmented reality is.

One form of AR that any sports fan will be familiar with (even without realising it) is pre, during or post-match analysation. Let’s take football for example, you’ve just watched your team lose and now even worst you’ve got to watch Gary Neville ripping your team to shreds on the big touch screen (tactics table), where the pundits will use arrows, boxes, and other visuals to explain their points, you guessed it, all augmented reality.

Augmented reality is even reshaping the way we experience art galleries and museums. Interactive experiences at The Tate Modern art gallery took advantage of AR technology to create a unique exhibition named “The Dream Makers”. The exhibition allowed users to interact with art in ways which would have been previously impossible.

Beyond big budgets: AR for SMBs

Although the examples and applications we have explored today seem incredibly advance (and pricey), there are plenty of affordable ways that small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) can implement AR into their operations, as well as plenty of reasons why they should.

SMBs can leverage augmented reality (AR) to enhance customer experiences, improve operational efficiency, and stand out in a competitive market.

For example, AR can be used in retail to provide customers with interactive product demonstrations, allowing them to see how products look and function in real-life scenarios. In the manufacturing industry, AR can aid in the assembly and maintenance of products by providing workers with step-by-step instructions and information overlaid on the physical equipment.

AR can also be used in training and education, allowing employees to experience simulated scenarios and acquire new skills in a safe and controlled environment. By incorporating AR, SMBs can differentiate themselves and gain a competitive advantage in their respective industries.

REYDAR – your augmented reality agency

So there we have it, that was everything you need to know about AR in our comprehensive guide. Never considered using AR in your business before? Done it a million times? It doesn’t matter what stage you’re at. Choosing an augmented reality agency is tough, but at REYDAR we have been developing AR solutions and experiences for over a decade now and we are all ears when it comes to new projects, if you’ve got an idea, talk with one of our AR experts today.

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