SAN FRANCISCO — Virtual reality is a trip, but an even wilder ride could be around the corner as mind-bending startups and technology trendsetters try to emblazon the world with interactive holograms that enlighten, entertain and empower us.
The concept, known as augmented reality, looks like something out of a science-fiction movie. Think Tony Stark, the comic-book character who scans information-filled holograms beamed in front of his Iron Man mask, or John Anderton, the character that Tom Cruise played while flipping through digital screens floating in the air in “Minority Report.”
Augmented reality hasn’t advanced as far as virtual reality, which is getting attention with the release of the much-hyped Oculus Rift headset from Facebook.
But augmented reality has the potential to touch far more people because it’s designed as a seamless supplement to everyday living instead of an escape into the artificial dimensions conjured by VR, which so far revolves around video games and 360-degree video clips.
“Augmented reality is going to have a lot more practical applications simply because there are a lot more people out there who interact with things in the real world,” said Greg Kipper, who studied the technology’s potential in his book, “Augmented Reality: An Emerging Technologies Guide to AR.”
With augmented reality, the three-dimensional holograms seen through a headset are meant to be a helpful or amusing companion to the real world. When you walk through a grocery aisle, you might see a list of ingredients for making an Italian dish appear on a virtual screen before your eyes. Or an image of the solar system might orbit around you as you read an astronomy book.
While startups such as Meta, Magic Leap and Atheer have been making the most visible progress in augmented reality so far, technology heavyweights are eyeing it.
Microsoft has started shipping a $3,000 version of its augmented reality headset, HoloLens, to a limited audience of computer programmers, while Google has been a key investor in the $1.3 billion that Magic Leap has raised during the past two years.
Apple Inc. signaled its interest last year when it bought a startup called Metaio, spurring speculation that the iPhone maker is exploring ways to infuse the project in its future products.
Meta, a startup with about 100 employees, is scheduled to ship its second-generation headset this summer. It’s being sold as part of a $949 kit tailored for programmers to design more 3-D, interactive applications for the headset.