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Augmented reality in the 12th century

Since I’m obviously thinking about augmented reality, I started to wonder about augmented reality systems that were used before November 2012.

Before I did so, I figured I’d better get my definitions straight. Erick Schonfeld wrote the following in 2010:

If virtual reality is a complete immersion in a digital world, augmented reality (AR) is more a digital overlay onto the real world.

Thus, something like Google Ingress is augmented reality, and something like Second Life is virtual reality (although real things can enter into that virtual reality).

Dan Sung wrote a brief history of augmented reality that went back to the 1990s – actually, to the 1950s – but he began his history with the following note:

The term “augmented reality” has been around since 1990 but that doesn’t mean that it was never there before. The moment that man made gadgets that could relate to their environment and supply their users with information based on that, AR was there. It’s just that nobody thought to call it that.

So, what was the first “augmented reality”? Let’s ignore Schonfeld’s use of the word “digital” in his definition; let’s think about any old overlay onto the real world.

That’s what got me thinking about sunglasses. Sunglasses are as basic an overlay as you can get. And, in a sense, they change your perception of reality; things you can’t see in the blinding sun can clearly be discerned when you put your pre-Google sunglasses on.

But how long have sunglasses been around? While many sources acknowledge the pioneering work of Sam Foster (the Foster of Foster Grant), even those sources note that this was not an original invention of Foster. John Gibb:

The 12th century is when sunglasses were invented properly, in China. They were using lenses made from imperfection-heavy quartz to block out the light from the sun, and primitive frames to hold them against the wearer’s face. These sunglasses didn’t protect against harmful UV rays or help their wearer to see any better (in fact, they made it very difficult to see), but they provided some relief from having the bright sun constantly shining into their eyes. Only the rich had them, but they found many uses for them – Chinese rulers and judges, for example, found that they could use the sunglasses to hide the expression on their face when they were talking to someone, allowing them to seem emotionally detached from situations.

Can you think of an earlier implementation of augmented reality? If so, please share it in the comments.

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