Augmented reality (AR) has long sounded like a wild, futuristic concept, but the technology has been around for years. AR is all about superimposing computer-generated images on top of your view of reality, thus creating a composite view that augments the real world. AR apps run the gamut from interactive map overlays and virtual showrooms to massive multiplayer skirmishes. More and more ARKit apps are rolling out on Apple’s iOS, and while Google has killed off Project Tango, ARCore is the future on Android.
The best AR apps
Froggipedia ($ 4)
While definitely not for the more squeamish, Froggipedia is an excellent educational tool for anyone who really doesn’t like the idea of dissecting a real frog in the name of science. Froggipedia helps you to explore and experience the unique and fun lifecycle of a frog, from its start as a single-celled egg to eventually becoming a fully grown frog. The app gives you the ability to take a frog apart, or take a transparent view of a living frog. Use your Apple Pencil or finger to dissect your frog further and get a closer look at individual organs and systems within — all without harming an actual frog. Unfortunately, for Android users, this app is currently for iOS only.
BBC Civilisations AR
Education is a great use for augmented reality, and it’s apps like this one that are really starting to pave the way for an AR-centric future. The Civilisations AR app from the BBC gives you the ability to admire various historical artifacts, locating, rotating and resizing them as you see fit. There’s an extremely handy tutorial when you first start the app, which guides you through checking out an Egyptian mummy, hearing about its history, and even seeing inside it with an X-ray function. There are more than 30 historical items for you to admire, explore, and photograph in your living room. This is a great app for anyone interested in history, or those seeking a sneak peak at the likely future of museums.
There’s a little artistry in everyone, but not everyone has the time to sit down and practice drawing hands for hours and hours. Why not cheat a little? SketchAR is essentially AR tracing — plot a couple of circles on a piece of paper and choose a sketch, and SketchAR will project that image onto the paper, allowing you to trace around it. It’s not exactly tracing, as you’ll struggle to properly match the lines perfectly, but it works very well if you’re looking to practice specific drawing techniques.
SketchAR can be a little awkward — holding a phone in one hand and drawing with the other is not exactly a natural position — but it’s worth a try. It works with small pieces of paper on most ARCore-capable phones. It’s available for Android, iOS, and Microsoft’s HoloLens headset.
Want to learn a new language, but never feel like you have the time? Mondly is one of the best ways to learn a new language, and since it’s on your phone, you can learn on the go. With 33 different languages for you to choose from and daily exercises to keep you learning, you’ll be chatting in a different language in no time at all.
Mondly hasn’t been slow to adopt new tech. There’s a VR version of the app for the Gear VR — and more excitingly — AR tech is built into the main app. Tap the AR button, and you’ll be asked to find a flat surface like a floor. Once that’s detected, the app will ask you to plonk down your AR teacher, and she’ll then begin your lesson, bringing in examples of the words as a memory aid. While it may not be something you engage in every day, the AR side of Mondly is a fun little addition that can shake up your language-learning experience. Mondly’s AR is currently available only on the Android version of the app, but the company promises it’ll have the iOS version up and running very soon.
It wouldn’t be a list of the best AR apps without mentioning Niantic’s Pokémon Go, a game that quickly captured everyone’s attention and given them a reason to go out into the world, walk around, and catch Pokémon. The game uses GPS to mark your location and move your in-game avatar, while your smartphone camera is used to show Pokémon in the real world. For the most part, it works, provided the game hasn’t crashed or frozen. There aren’t a lot of instructions when you first start, or information regarding game mechanics like the colored rings around wild Pokémon, but thanks to the nature of the internet, figuring out what to do isn’t that tough.
Players of the original Ingress, another Niantic creation, will see many similarities between the developer’s two games, right down to the locations marked as Pokéstops and gyms. So far, the game has received multiple updates, including trading, raids, and player-versus-player battles. And of course, hundreds of new Pokémon have been added. Niantic is set to continue updating the game to improve its performance and add new features, so we imagine Pokémon Go will stick around for a good, long while.
Ink Hunter is the app you should use when deciding on a tattoo and where to put it. The app lets you try out premade tattoos, as well as your own designs, and they can be oriented in whatever position you like and placed on any part of the body. Tattoos placed on the body using the camera look as close to real life as you’re going to get — without actually going under the needle that is — and that’s all thanks to the in-app editor and the way Ink Hunter renders tattoos. The app previously only supported black-and-white tattoos, but its latest update added support for color tattoos as well, meaning you can get a better picture of what the design will look like before you make it permanent.
WallaMe lets you leave hidden messages in various locations around the world that can only be read by other people using the WallaMe app. When using the app, you can take a picture of a nearby wall, street, or sign, then use the in-app drawing and painting tools to create your own special messages. You can also attach pictures to the areas you’ve chosen, if only to prove you were actually there. The augmented reality aspect really comes into play when you’re in a location that has a hidden message, but it can only be found by using WallaMe and your device’s camera. Messages can be made private, too, so that only friends using the app can see them, or they can be made public for everyone to discover.
WallaMe’s biggest strength also works against it, in a way. Those who aren’t aware of the app’s existence, or those who don’t regularly use it, may never see the clever messages created by others. But fans of the app may want to keep it that way, in order to maintain the feeling of exclusivity.
Google Translate isn’t strictly an AR app, but it does have one AR feature that’s incredibly useful for translating text. That particular feature is part of the app’s camera mode. Simply snap a photo of the text you don’t understand, and the app will translate the text in your photo in real time. When connected to Wi-Fi, the app supports a vast number of languages, but users can also download a number of language packs if they want to continue using the instant translation feature while offline or without a cellular connection. Next time you take a trip to a country with a language you aren’t fluent in, Google Translate could be your best friend and the only thing that will keep you from getting lost in a strange land.
Amikasa ($ 1)
Amikasa helps you style your room and figure out your desired layout before you ever buy a piece of furniture. Using your iPhone or iPad’s camera, you can easily walk around your bedroom, kitchen, work office, or any other room you decide to furnish, and place 3D models of various items to see how they look, or to discover their ideal placement. This includes the ability to tweak the color, because maybe that cherry red chair suits the room better than the peach. The app uses name-brand items, which you can buy while using Amikasa, and if you’re ever unsure of your own style, your augmented rooms can be shared with friends and family through the app. The most recent update also added more kitchen faucets, cabinets, burners, and wallpapers, giving you even more options to design your perfect room.