Part I. Background: Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality” is a term used for interactive computer graphics which overlays a view of the physical world.  The trick is done by capturing the current view with a camera, and inserting computer generated content into the scene, so the user sees both the real world and the extra content:  an augmented view of reality.  Crucially, the digital content is registered with the real world scene, so it moves naturally as if it is actually there in the physical world. This can be done in a variety of ways, including via camera equipped smartphones and tablets.

Augmented reality is difficult to understand in words. It’s basically magic when it works right.

Table 1 below points to a dozen examples, which you should try out to get the idea.

For a complete and authoritative explanation of Augmented Reality, you should get Alan Craig’s upcoming new book, Understanding Augmented Reality: Concepts and Application (available summer 2013) (Craig, 2013).

Alan Craig and I have been thinking, studying, and talking about Augmented Reality for many years now. We have mainly been concerned about non-profit sector applications, including science, museums, schools, and so on.  Here are a couple of highlights.

A “Magic Book” for Science Education

In an earlier demonstration, we created an augmented Ethnobotany workbook (McGrath et al., 2011; McGrath, Craig, Bock, & Rocha, 2011),  (funded in part by help from our colleague Maurice Godfrey of the University of Nebraska Medical Center  and NIH). This application is an example of a “magic book” (Billinghurst, Kato, & Poupyrev, 2001; Grasset, Dunser, & Billinghurst, 2008): digital content tied to a published image, which pops up in 3D.  In this case, each page of the workbook is augmented with a 3D, color graphic representing a specimen of the plant, which hovers over the page on your screen.  You can turn the book, move closer or farther, etc., and the plant will follow your movements so you can see it from all sides.

A more recent example is Alan Craig’s great demo for Supercomputing 2012 (NCSA, 2012), which I noted earlier.

This is an issue of NCSA’s magazine, ACCESS, with nearly every article augmented with digital content visible with a mobile device.  When you point your phone or tablet at the magazine, and video or 3D content will pop up, and hang over the page, and move as you turn the magazine. The issue was released to great acclaim at the Supercomputing 2013 conference last fall.

To experience the content, download the app for your device (Android or Apple) from:

Start the app, point it at the cover and articles.

You can print the magazine or point your app at it on a screen. It will work best at full size and resolution.

Full instructions on page 3 of the magazine.

These applications are variations on the classic “magic book” application, as pioneered by Mark Billinghurst and colleagues (e.g., Billinghurst, Kato, & Poupyrev, 2001; Grasset, Dunser, & Billinghurst, 2008).  These tie digital graphics to conventional published images.  But it should be clear that the image could be a poster or a sign on the wall as well as a “book”, creating augmented signage.  And, you could post the image on a web page or even email someone the image, which they can point the app at to see the 3D content.

There are other variations of AR (see Craig, 2013) for a complete rundown).  Instead of a handheld device, you might have a fixed camera and screen, and hold your book under it.  This is often called a “kiosk” application.  A version of this has been used, for example, in Lego stores.

AR can also create a “magic mirror”:  the camera points at your face, and shows your picture, augmented with a hat, mask or whatever.  A classic example of this concept was used in a promotion for the Ironman 2 movie: the application captures your face with a web camera, and superimposes a superhero mask over your face.  As you turn your head, the mask stays perfectly atop your face as if you were wearing it.  Similar applications are now used to help customers select sunglasses from an on line catalog.

There are many other variations.  See the examples in Table 1 to get some idea of how this works.

Finally, AR applications do not have to simply single user, look at this cool stuff. There can be more than one item to recognize, and the position and combination of items can trigger events.  For example, one marker might show a plant, another a shovel, and when you bring them together, the scene shifts so the plant is attached to the shovel.  See some experiments with this technique at:  (Semararo, Craig, & McGrath, 2010),

If you want to know more about Augmented Reality, check out Alan Craig’s authoritative new book, to appear soon. (Craig, 2013).

Table 1. Cool Augmented Reality Examples: check ‘em out

Lego store displays (by metaio)
Interior Design (by daqri)
Macy’s retail installation (by metaio?)
“Publishing”, magazines, etc. (by metaio)
IEEE Computer cover (by Vuforia)
NCSA Access magazine (by daqri)
Visible Human (by daqri)
Ironman movie, “magic mirror” (by Total Immersion)



Billinghurst, M., Kato, H., & Poupyrev, I. (2001). The MagicBook – Moving seamlessly between reality and virtuality. IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications, 21(3), 6-8.

Craig, A. B. (2013). Understanding Augmented Reality: Concepts and Applications (forthcoming). San Francisco: Morgan Kaufman.

Grasset, R., Dunser, A., & Billinghurst, M. (2008). The design of a mixed-reality book: Is it still a real book? Paper presented at the 7th IEEE/ACM International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality.

McGrath, R. E., Craig, A., Bock, D., & Rocha, R. (2011). Augmented Reality for an Ethnobotany Workbook: Institute for Computing in the Humanities, Social Sciences and Arts (I-CHASS), University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.


Semararo, L., Craig, A., & McGrath, R. E. (2010). Augmented Reality Demonstrations: Institute for Computing in the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (ICHASS), University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

One thought on “Part I. Background: Augmented Reality”

  1. Here is Africa’s first augmented reality innovation used to advertise a consumer brand.

    AR is getting bigger and bigger


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