A History of Augmented Reality


Although augmented reality (AR) is a relatively new term, human beings have been “augmenting” their perceptions of the world for at least 40,000 years and probably a lot longer.


A Māori chief in the 1700s

That is, we have long been using art, symbols and language to communicate information that adds context to our senses. We have, for example, used the following types of “augmentation”:

  • Tattoos and body paints for communicating context (e.g., tribal membership and status)
  • Symbols for adding information about history and meaning (e.g., hieroglyphics)
  • Monuments for enhancing and guiding perceptions (e.g., Stonehenge for astronomical phenomena)
  • Artifacts such as stained glass for changing perceptions and emotional context (e.g., at religious services)

So, today’s augmented reality is an extension of what humankind has been doing for millennia. Today, we can define it as “any view of reality that is augmented via an overlay of sensory input – typically generated by computer – such as graphics, video, sounds, or data.”

A Short History of AR


Frank Baum, the author best known for writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, wrote a novel called The Master Key: An Electrical Fairy Tale. In it, he described electronic glasses that could provide insights into a person’s character. That would, in fact, be quite the augmentation.

The 1960s and 1970s


Source: Ohio State University

We can’t point to any single historical event that clearly demarcates the beginning of modern AR, but several pioneers envisioned and then developed early versions of what we would today call “virtual reality.”

  • In 1968, for example, computer scientist Ivan Sutherland worked with student Bob Sproull to create a head-mounted display system with computer-generated graphics. They called it the Sword of Damocles
  • In 1974, Myron Krueger assembled an “artificial reality” laboratory with video cameras and projectors.

Early 1990s

  • The actual term “augmented reality” was coined in 1990 by Boeing researchers Tom Caudell and

    Source: NIST

    David Mizell. They were referring to a head-mounted display used to guide the assembly of wire bundles for aircraft.

  • Virtual Fixtures was first developed by Louis Rosenberg at the USAP Armstrong Labs in 1992. It is sometimes called the first fully immersive AR system. Virtual Fixtures used two real physical robots, controlled by a full upper-body exoskeleton worn by the user.

Mid-to-Late 1990s

  • Computer scientists Jun Rekimoto and Katashi Nagao developed the first handheld AR display. Their NaviCam was connected to a workstation and had a forward-facing camera. Using a video feed, it detected color-coded markers and displayed information on a video see-through view.
  • From 1997 to 2001, the Japanese government and Canon Inc. jointly funded the Mixed Reality Systems Laboratory, the largest industrial research facility for mixed reality research up to that point in time.


  • ARToolKit, an open-source computer tracking library for the creation of AR applications, was developed by Hirokazu Kato in 1999 and released in 2001.


    ARToolKit Logo

  • In 2003, the first handheld AR system running on a “personal digital assistant” (precursor to smartphones) was developed.
  • In 2008, the “first truly usable natural feature tracking system” was developed, according to informit. It became Vuforia, an AR Software Development Kit (SDK) for mobile devices.

In the 2010s

  • In 2013, Volkswagon released its Mobile Augmented Reality Technical Assistant, aka Marta,  which uses the camera built into tablet computers to display technician service information in real time.


    Google Glass image by Dan Leveille: twitter.com/danley

  • In 2014, Google made Google Glass available to the public. The head-mounted display showed smartphone-like information in a hands-free format, though it met with criticism over privacy concerns.
  • In the first two months of 2016, AR and its cousin virtual reality (VR) reached $1.1 billion in investments. That topped the $700 million invested for all of the previous year.
  • As of October 2016, mainstream VCs had invested $2.3 billion in VR and AR over the previous 12 months, according to Tim Merel, managing director of Digi-Capital.
  • In 2016, the game Pokémon Go turned AR into a mainstream phenomenon. In it, players find, capture, battle, and train virtual creatures known as Pokémon (or “pocket monsters”). By harnessing the GPS feature on mobile devices, the game presents creatures on screens as if they were in the same real-world location as the players themselves. After launch, it reached 50 million downloads in just 19 days, breaking the records of hit games such as Angry Birds and Candy Crush.

Image by Jwslubbock

Next Up: How Is AR Being Used By Companies Today?

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