In the summer of 2009, Yelp quietly added a feature to its iPhone app that blurred the line between the real and the virtual. If you held your handset up and looked at the world through its screen, you’d see little floating tags containing the names, user ratings, and other details of businesses around you.
The feature, called Monocle, was an experiment with augmented reality—one of many that appeared around this time, as companies tossed around various ways to mesh digital content with the real world, hoping to catch consumers’ eyes (see “TR10: Augmented Reality” and “New Reality”).
Several years later, augmented reality is still mostly used by early tech adopters, but it’s starting to graze the mainstream, helped by the massive popularity of smartphones and tablets, and their constantly improving processors and sensors, along with the growth of high-speed wireless data networks. Apps featuring augmented reality are available for everything from gaming to driving to furniture arrangement. Slowly but surely, augmented reality is becoming less of a novelty and more of a utility.