Augmented Reality: Types of AR

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Discover the two main types of AR—marker-based augmented reality and markerless augmented reality—as well as different classifications of markerless AR like location-based, projection-based, and superimposition-based.

[Featured Image] A woman uses an AR app to find directions in a city.

Many industries use augmented reality (AR) in various ways, from just-for-fun games and entertainment to space exploration. AR can transform the way we see the world literally, adding digital information to your field of vision, including text information, animations, videos, and more. By using a projection lens or smart device, augmented reality technology projects digital information so that you can see or, in some cases, interact with it, superimposed within the real world.

Different types of AR provide various functionalities to offer such a wide range of capabilities. In this article, you will learn about the two main types of augmented reality and how you can use them in your daily life. 

What is AR?

Augmented reality is a technology that overlaps text, images, videos, animations, and other digital products into a real-world view. Unlike virtual reality, which aims to make users feel like they are experiencing an entirely different reality or location, augmented reality enhances your current world. Augmented reality uses artificial intelligence, AR software, sensors, cameras, and screens to improve what it can “see” and provide an extended version of the real world.

Augmented reality can change how we interact with the world, including how we learn, interact with the world in our day-to-day lives, and create and design products. 

Types of AR

You can separate augmented reality technologies into two main types: marker-based and markerless. Both groups qualify as “triggered” augmented reality, meaning the experiences happen in response to external triggers, such as GPS location or scanning a QR code. The difference between marker-based and markerless AR is where the external triggers come from and how the augmented reality app is programmed to respond. 

Marker-based augmented reality 

Marker-based augmented reality experiences occur in response to a predetermined input into your smartphone or other device. For example, a self-guided hike or tour might rely on a series of QR codes that participants scan to learn more information about the location they are touring. When you scan the image, your device determines the position and angle of your camera to compare the scanned image to a database until it finds what you are looking at and responds as it was programmed to respond. The visual marker you react to, commonly a QR code, is also called a fiducial marker and is commonly used to access digital content.

The distinguishing characteristic of marker-based augmented reality is that you provide a designated fiducial marker to your device, and it returns a predetermined output based on how you’ve programmed the device to respond to the marker.

Another example of marker-based augmented reality happened due to the canceled London Fashion Week during the pandemic. In partnership with the Institute of Digital Fashion, Machine-A launched virtual boutique experiences that people could scan using QR codes as they traveled around the city. 

Markerless augmented reality 

The second primary type of AR is markerless augmented reality. Instead of a dedicated fiducial marker, markerless AR relies on data provided by geographic location, cameras, sensors like accelerometers or compasses, or even the time of day to determine how to respond. 

Pokémon Go is an example of markerless augmented reality. The app collects data to determine your location, direction of movement, and current time to populate your area with Pokémon characters. With markerless augmented reality, Pokémon Go can decide which Pokémon would be found in your area. The Pokémon characters even know your bearing and speed as you approach them. 

Markerless AR is a broad category that can refer to different types of augmented reality, including location-based, projection-based, and superimposition-based. Augmented reality applications sometimes use more than one kind of AR to create a unified experience. Let’s take a closer look at each of these types of AR.

Location-based AR

Location-based augmented reality uses data from your device’s GPS, accelerometer, and other sensors to determine what image or information to show. For example, location-based augmented reality in an app to view the night sky provides an overlay of information, such as labeling the stars and planets in your camera’s line of sight. Beyond providing additional information, you can also use location-based AR for various community or marketing projects, such as AR murals or games that require participants to visit different locations in town. 

Projection-based AR

Projection-based augmented reality uses equipment to project images into a preprogrammed space. Users experiencing the AR are free to walk around and explore the space, but the projected images remain in the designated area. Users can experience images, animations, text, or video in the confines of the projection-based AR. For example, IKEA’s app IKEA Place allows you to project IKEA furniture into your room so you can see how the products will fit in your space.

Superimposition-based AR

Superimposition-based augmented reality replaces one aspect or element of the visual field with something else or overlays an enhanced image onto the object. For example, image filters on social media that replace your face or background with an enhanced image run on superimposition-based AR. The technology needs to categorize the objects in its field of vision to understand which image it needs to replace or improve.

Applications for augmented reality

Augmented reality can enhance the way we see the world in many ways. From marketing new products to improving surgical techniques, we will continue to find new ways that AR can innovate our experience of the real world. Applications for AR include:

  • Retail: Retail stores use augmented reality in a few different ways, such as offering apps where users can virtually try on items, offering in-store experiences to add insight and extra information about products, or offering AR experiences as a way of marketing their brands. Another example of retail AR might be an in-store display where you can accessorize or personalize retail products before buying them.

  • Education: In the classroom, you can use augmented reality to provide interactive experiences to make learning more engaging, provide additional context to an environment, and make remote learning feel more like in-person learning. Augmented reality helps students view complex models, such as anatomical models, in a classroom space. Museums and historical sites can use augmented reality to demonstrate what the objects or locations would have looked like in the past.

  • Health care: Augmented reality provides tools for providers to make their work more precise and efficient or to provide better patient service. For example, surgeons can use superimposition-based augmented reality to visualize their surgical plan without looking at screens or other devices that take the focus away from the patient. Patients can use AR to find their way through large hospitals as well.

  • Entertainment: AR has many applications for entertainment, such as the image filters you might find on Snapchat or Instagram or the game Pokémon Go. Augmented reality could also enhance live concerts, adding lyrics or other interesting information to your view as you watch. Esports could also benefit from AR capabilities, allowing more people to play along or enhancing games as you watch them.

  • Employee training: You can use augmented reality in employee training to help employees encounter training experiences in a natural setting, such as practicing customer service or situational decision-making. AR can provide tools with step-by-step instructions or other support for technical or complicated work. 

Augmented reality also has uses for tourism, fashion, manufacturing, architecture, national defense, and even space exploration.

These potential uses for augmented reality are just the beginning. In the future, doctors can view X-ray images superimposed on actual patients, drivers might see GPS directions projected on the road in front of them, and you may see enhanced information about the world around you everywhere you look.  

Learn more with Coursera.

If you’re ready to learn more about types of AR, consider taking the course Introduction to Augmented Reality and ARCore offered by Google AR&VR on Coursera. This beginner-level course takes approximately 10 hours to complete. 

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