In the summer of 2016, Pokémon GO was the game on everyone’s lips and mobile devices. For many people, the illusion of finding and capturing these computer-generated creatures in their actual surroundings was their first exposure to augmented reality (AR) technology. All at once, the melding of the physical and digital trend seemed to double the size of the world.
Although that craze has passed, our world in the years since has quietly grown many times larger and richer with each new release of AR hardware and software. And it’s not just cute games on our smartphones. Since the early disappointment of Google Glass, the market for smart glasses and AR glasses has exploded, a harbinger for a future in which every man, woman, and child will have access to hands-free augmented reality.
According to recent estimates, the value of the AR industry stands at more than $1.5 billion. Well-funded companies like Magic Leap are setting the bar high with head-mounted displays that offer users a lightweight, high-powered AR experience. Competition is fierce, and there’s no telling what innovations are on the horizon.
The time to learn augmented reality is right now, and we’re here to give you everything you need to decide whether learning AR is a step you’re ready to take.
What is Augmented Reality?
Augmented reality (AR) is a technology that enhances a user’s experience of the real world by overlaying digital objects, graphics, or information onto a user’s environment.
The resulting AR experience is a powerful illusion of physical and virtual worlds colliding. Unlike virtual reality (VR), which provides an immersive experience of a computer-generated environment, AR does not leave the real world behind. Augmented reality allows users to experience both worlds at once without being glued to their smartphones.
Most crucially, as part of the AI, machine learning (ML), and spatial computing revolution, augmented reality is helping to facilitate a more integrated and efficient partnership between human beings and computers. This partnership will be a vital boon to our search for solutions to the unique problems facing humanity in the 21st century.
What Is Augmented Reality Used for?
You probably already know about the gaming and entertainment possibilities. And if you’re here because you’re looking to break into video game design, there are certainly avenues involving AR integration you can pursue.
But augmented reality insiders are most excited about how the technology can be used to improve people’s lives. Whether you’re interested in hardware or mobile app development, below are some of the sectors where your education in AR will be most immediately useful.
- Education. Digesting information about a subject is more fun and interactive when AR is involved. Textbooks can be outfitted with AR technology, and AR museum exhibits can use holograms to teach us more about a piece of art.
- Retail. Now that augmented reality can show you how that piece of furniture will look in your living room, or how that watch will look on your wrist, the hard sell is a thing of the past.
- Healthcare. From guiding surgeons through difficult procedures to helping med students memorize anatomical information, augmented reality is making healthcare safer and more reliable for everyone.
- Automotive. A hands-free AR device enables mechanics to access data and information about a vehicle or its parts from under the hood. Similarly, drivers behind the wheel can use heads-up displays to bring information into their line of sight.
Types of Augmented Reality
Augmented reality technology comes in many forms, shapes, and sizes, and everything that falls under the AR umbrella could be sliced up in several different ways. But as far as the beginner is concerned, there are two main types:
Marker-Based Augmented Reality
More limited in applicability than its markerless counterpart, marker-based augmented reality is nevertheless a useful technology. A marker is something in the physical world that a smartphone camera can recognize and track. Mobile apps that deploy marker-based AR can create AR experiences by superimposing digital content onto markers.
Some textbooks, for example, are now sold with augmented reality add-ons, which allow students to enrich their learning by pointing their mobile devices at markers on the page and bringing some difficult concepts or case studies to life.
Markerless Augmented Reality
This more versatile technology circumvents markers entirely by using Simultaneous Location and Mapping (SLAM). Basically, a SLAM algorithm combines information from GPS, a compass, and a camera to create a continuous digital representation of the user’s environment as he or she moves around in space.
This gives the AR software enough information to project a piece of digital content directly into the represented environment, creating a convincing illusion that the physical world actually contains the digital object.
Suffice it to say that the effects of markerless AR are truly out of this world.
Learning Augmented Reality
Being inspired by AR technology out in the world is one thing. Learning how to create new AR products for oneself is a different animal.
But the industry’s rapid growth means that companies have begun to streamline the processes of AR development and break down the barriers to entry. The slick learning and training resources now available are luring a new generation of talented developers.
With a little luck and a lot of commitment, you could be the cream of the next crop.
How Long Does It Take to Learn Augmented Reality?
Anything worth learning takes time. You cannot learn something as complex, intricate, and multifaceted as augmented reality overnight. Even applications like Pokémon GO, whose simplicity is a huge part of its mainstream appeal, took a long time to develop.
That said, if you’re committed to learning the ins and outs of augmented reality, there are plenty of ways to plant your flag at the top of that hill. Whether you prefer to acquire knowledge through books, classes, or certificate programs, you should expect to spend a few months learning the basics, and one to two years mastering the technology.
You will probably experience growing pains along the way. That’s normal. But stick it out, and you’ll be surprised how quickly it becomes second nature.
How to Learn Augmented Reality: Step-by-Step
It’s hard to know where to start. Even if you have a vague sense of how you want to use AR technology, you still need to get from conception to execution to implementation.
The good news for beginners is that the innovators who came before you smoothed out the map and found shortcuts for you to follow. Thanks to them, the instruction manual for learning AR is relatively straightforward.
- Learn how to code. The proximity of AR/VR to the gaming world means that, regardless of how you want to mobilize the technology, the most useful programming languages to learn are those favored by gamers. C# and C++ have their advantages, but you should choose one that suits your experience and goals. If you’re in a hurry, C# is relatively easy to learn.
- Study the science of augmented reality. We’ve all encountered AR products with elegance and usability that make the science and technology behind the magic seem deceptively simple. But creating truly sophisticated AR experiences requires a detailed understanding of technical topics like optics, computer vision, camera representation, object marking, and GPS tracking, UX design, and digital animation.
- Choose your development platform. Once you have a handle on how it all works, you need to decide which tools to use. You no longer have to start building AR from scratch thanks to a number of great starter kits specially designed for developers. Among the best are Vuforia, Wikitude, Google’s ARCore, and Apple’s ARKit.
- Start prototyping. After taking some time to get the feel of things, you can begin assessing industry needs and start using your newfound skills to map out augmented reality solutions.
- Build a portfolio. Be patient. Your first, second, and third ideas may not live up to your expectations, but practice makes perfect. Save everything you create, no matter how small. Experiment with a wide range of techniques and applications so that you can demonstrate your value to the industry. By diversifying your skills and showing off your versatility, you may just land your dream job in AR/VR technology.
The Best Augmented Reality Courses and Training
At a time when competition, innovation, and investment are accelerating the growth of new knowledge in augmented reality, you want to make sure you’re studying someplace where your training won’t already be obsolete before you graduate.
While it’s not always true that education keeps pace with research and development, the top courses in extended reality are good about matching students with industry gurus and the most advanced technology. No matter how much time and money you have reserved for training, below are some reliable places where your education resources will be well spent.
Best In-Person Augmented Reality Classes
If you’re looking to study augmented reality in a physical setting with a live instructor, a certificate program at a community college is probably your best bet. But there are more expensive and time-intensive routes as well.
All of these programs are fairly new, which ensures that the information you will learn and the certification you will receive will be immediately useful.
- Course: Unity XR Certificate – Oakland, CA
- Time: 1 or 2 semesters (6 units total)
- Prerequisites: None
- Cost: $46 or $258 per unit plus fees
The ultimate convergence of industry-standard software and accredited training, the Unity XR Certificate program offers students unrivaled access to the Unity game engine at the low cost of two community college courses. Like most in-person programs in this field, the curriculum bundles AR and VR together into a single extended reality package.
If you have cold feet about taking an extra class, Laney’s dedication to professionalization may be enough to get you off the sidelines. Getting trained in both specializations, after all, is likely to increase your odds of landing an entry-level job as soon as you finish.
Miami Dade College
- Course: Virtual and Augmented Reality Technologies Certificate – Miami, FL
- Time: 1 year
- Prerequisites: None
- Cost: $2,246.18
It would not be an understatement to call the Miami Animation and Gaming International Complex (MAGIC) at Miami Dade College the gravitational center for education in AR and VR technology.
This 19-credit certificate program promises focused training with the latest hardware and software, practical projects, and access to industry professionals. Quench your thirst for AR-specific training with a four-credit course in Augmented Reality Platform Development, the final step before certification.
Orange Coast College
- Course: Immersive Media (VR/AR) Certificate – Costa Mesa, CA
- Time: 2 Years
- Prerequisites: None
- Cost: Financial Aid Eligible
Like the other community colleges on this list, the Orange Coast College (OCC) is affordable and convenient. The college’s Immersive Media faculty has been watching industry trends for a long time, building a curriculum and waiting for the perfect time to release it to students. So although the certificate program is less than two years old, you shouldn’t mistake youth for inexperience.
The 31-unit Certificate of Achievement includes a required introductory course in augmented reality, as well as a robust selection of AR-related electives like Mobile Application Development and 3D Modelling for Immersive Applications.
University of Michigan (School of Information)
- Course: Graduate Certificate in Extended Reality – Ann Arbor, MI
- Time: 4 courses
- Prerequisites: Intro to AVR Application Design (Note: must be enrolled in participating graduate program)
- Cost: Financial aid available upon admission
This special certificate is something to consider if you’re already planning to attend graduate school and would like to fold augmented reality into your intended course of study. One obvious benefit is that a degree from the University of Michigan, which consistently ranks among the best universities in the world, counts for a lot.
Not to mention that a well-endowed university has more resources than a community college budget can compete with. And if you can commit to something like this, you’ll have the freedom to create your own path to certification, with electives like Developing AR/VR Experiences, Immersive Media, and Generative Design Computing.
Best Online Augmented Reality Courses
Online education is undergoing a renaissance amid the COVID-19 pandemic. That is especially true of augmented reality, where the experts know a thing or two about crafting engaging lessons in digital space. Below are two courses that, despite being entirely online, give any in-person program a run for its money.
- Course: User Experience in Immersive Environments (AR/VR/MR)
- Time: 1 semester
- Prerequisites: None
- Cost: Call for details
A frequent challenge of implementing successful AR technologies is the gap between design and user experience. No amount of coding aptitude or tech savvy will matter unless you can build an empathic product that takes into account what your potential users want out of an augmented reality experience.
Figuring out how to square this circle can be an obstacle, but it can be overcome with a course like this one from UCLA Extension. Not only will you learn how to apply the principles of UX design to extended reality interfaces, but you will also gain hands-on experience culminating in the construction of your own human-centered prototype.
- Course: AR and VR Developer Program
- Time: 12 weeks starting December 1
- Prerequisites: Previous experience
- Cost: $5,400
If you have some experience in engineering or software development but are unsure how to maximize your earning potential, then this course may be right up your alley. The focus here is not on basic skills, but rather on the unique features of immersive digital content and the emerging markets for these technologies.
Taught by two industry moguls, the XRTerra program will highlight the most practical applications and waste no time in guiding you through the essentials of prototyping, product pitches, and building your portfolio.
- Course: A Beginner’s Guide to Augmented Reality with Unity
- Time: 11 hours
- Prerequisites: C# Programming Skills
- Cost: $12.99
As we’ve already seen, Unity is one of the biggest players in this space, if not the biggest. This practical course is designed for anyone with basic knowledge of computer science and a coding background. Learn how to set down markers in the real world, integrate GPS, and use mobile mapping to build scientifically sound AR applications from the ground up.
Best Free Augmented Reality Classes
Then there are classes that cost nothing at all, which companies like Google and Apple can afford to offer because it is in their interest to make their development software available to ambitious young developers. After taking one of the classes listed below, you just might be the one to design the next big app using ARCore or ARKit.
- Course: Introduction to Augmented Reality and ARCore
- Time: 11 hours
- Prerequisites: None
- Cost: Free
Designed for beginners, this series of four lessons will clearly explain all the fundamental concepts you need to start building AR experiences with ARCore, Google’s proprietary development tool for melding the virtual and the real. Get the course content for free, or pay $29 and earn certification that you can show to future employers.
- Course: Learn ARKit Using Unity
- Time: 1 month
- Prerequisites: Previous programming and web development experience
- Cost: Free
ARKit is Apple’s answer to Google’s ARCore. Geared toward learners with some prior experience, the class comes with a more ambitious set of objectives than Google’s Coursera course. By getting into the weeds, you’ll leave with a more nuanced understanding of the technology and a wider array of skills than a free course usually offers.
And given the popularity of Apple products, working knowledge of ARKit is a highly marketable asset in today’s economy.
Best Augmented Reality Books
Some people are visual learners, others are kinesthetic learners, and then there are those who just want to pack as much information into their heads as they possibly can, and decide for themselves what’s useful. If you’re in this latter category, then one of these books may be a better place to start than a course or workshop.
‘Augmented Reality for Developers’, by Jonathan Linowes and Krystian Babilinski
Linowes and Babilinski don’t mess around with storytelling. They come right at you with a technical overview of augmented reality, a guide to the most popular AR development software, and step-by-step instructions for building user-friendly mobile apps.
And after all that, they devote five full chapters to a series of AR projects that you can try out to practice what you’ve learned. It’s an all-in-one resource like no other.
‘The Infinite Retina’, Irena Cronin and Robert Scoble
The boom in augmented reality is making everyone go gaga over spatial computing, the technology that some say will irrevocably transform our lives and maybe even save the planet. It has all happened so fast that most people, even those of us who want in on the action, don’t have a firm grasp on what it all means for humanity.
In this potted history of the subject and peek into the future, Cronin and Scoble take readers on an extraordinary journey through the sectors of the economy where advances in spatial computing have made the greatest impact. Easy to read and full of information, The Infinite Retina will blow your mind and show you how you can team up with AR to change the world.
Best Online Augmented Reality Resources
But wait, there’s more. It takes commitment to maintain whatever knowledge and skills you manage to gain. You would be wise, then, to spend a few minutes every day staying apprised of new applications and exciting opportunities in the VR/AR industry. Below are just a couple of the places online you can go to keep augmented reality on your radar.
Google AR Experiments
Inspiration for your next project is waiting for you at Experiments with Google. This collection of augmented reality examples, created by real people all over the world, is guaranteed to stimulate your imagination by exploring the frontiers of what AR makes possible. Check them out on social media at their Twitter handle @ExpWithGoogle.
Augmented World Expo (AWE) Blog
The Augmented World Expo is a series of global events where industry leaders meet to mingle, share ideas, and collaborate on the next wave of AR innovations. Even if you can’t afford to attend, you can get the next best thing by subscribing to Weekly Spatial, their free community newsletter.
Read up on all the big announcements and ideas, and browse a calendar of upcoming events. It will feel like you’re attending the Expo in person, or at least in augmented reality.
Should You Study Augmented Reality?
When physical and virtual worlds come together, magic happens.
Given the massive potential for AR technology, learning augmented reality may be the best career move you could make. But don’t take my word for it. Before getting started down this road, take a look at the best jobs available for AR architects and see if any of them seem well suited to your interests and goals.
Whether you’re an entrepreneur, an aspiring software developer, a game designer, or you simply have an affinity for solving real-world problems, it may be time to hit the books.