Keeping Up With... Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality

This edition of Keeping Up With… was written by Carli Spina.

Carli Spina is the Emerging Technologies and Research Librarian at Harvard Law School Library, email:

What is Augmented Reality?

Augmented Reality is “the use of technology which allows the perception of the physical world to be enhanced or modified by computer-generated stimuli perceived with the aid of special equipment.” [1] Most frequently, this is achieved by viewing surroundings through the camera of a smartphone or tablet, though it can also be done using other devices, such as Google Glass. In the future, devices intended specifically for use with augmented reality applications will become more common, such as iOptik’s augmented reality contact lens/glasses pairing, which was unveiled at the beginning of this year at CES[2] or Evena Eyes-On Glasses, which show medical professionals the exact location of patients’ blood vessels to make IV placement easier[3]. While there is a wide range of types of information that can be overlayed on the image, some of the most common are images and text. Examples of augmented reality in action range from Ikea’s app, which uses augmented reality to allow customers to virtually see how furniture looks in their home[4], to Word Lens, an app for iOS and Android devices that uses a device’s camera to detect and translate printed language instantaneously.[5] In the coming years, these devices and applications will continue to proliferate, bringing augmented reality to an ever-expanding audience. Cutting edge libraries and educational organizations are already taking steps to take advantage of these tools to convey information to users in new and exciting ways.

How is Augmented Reality Being Used in Education?

Since augmented reality is all about connecting users with context-specific information, it has obviously been of great interest to educators in a variety of fields. Rather than being limited to providing students with static materials, augmented reality can be used to provide information at the point of need and to customize the information that individual students receive. Tools like the Word Lens translation app mentioned above and Situated Simulations, an app developed in Norway which allows users to see their current location as it looked at an earlier point in time,[6] can help students to make the transition between classroom learning and the real world. These types of apps are even more prevalent in the sciences, where augmented reality has been used to teach students about topics ranging from astronomy to medicine. One such application, Environmental Detectives, allows students to interact seamlessly with both real and virtual information while they investigate environmental damage.[7] Pearson publishing has also partnered with augmented reality company Layar to bring interactive content to their print textbooks through the use of a free mobile app.[8] Currently, this is being introduced in a K-5 math textbook, but the potential applications extend to any subject that would benefit from sharing interactive content with students as they study. In more informal settings, companies are also experimenting with how augmented reality can bring fun and engaging educational content to their works, such as the German company Morphoria, which has created a magazine that uses augmented reality to demonstrate sign language to readers.[9]

How is Augmented Reality Being Used in Libraries?

At a minimum, libraries will need to be prepared to support augmented reality if and when it becomes more prevalent in textbooks and other print materials. But, while these materials are certainly relevant to the work of academic libraries, there are also several interesting library-specific augmented reality tools in use at various institutions. ShelvAR, developed by the Miami University Library, is an excellent example of how augmented reality can increase the efficiency of libraries’ existing workflows. Available for use with any iOS or Android device with a camera, this app can scan any tagged library materials and overlay a red X over any item that is out of place on the shelf.[10] The developers of the app have future plans to offer inventory management tools to supplement this shelf reading capability.

Augmented reality can also be used to create engaging patron-facing applications that can bring new patrons in and connect them with information they would not have typically sought out. The University of Houston - Downtown has used Aurasma to develop library orientation materials that take advantage of augmented reality to more effectively engage new students.[11] Team SCARLET is an organization devoted to creating augmented reality applications to connect users to special collections materials in a new way.[12] Another great example of this is German Traces NYC, which offers an app that connects users to materials about New York City’s German heritage as they walk around the City. The app, created by the Goethe-Institut and the Pratt Institute, saw over 19,000 users in its first year and was given the Cutting Edge Technology in Library Services award at the 2013 ALA Annual Conference.[13]

How Can Your Library Create Customized Augmented Reality Applications?

For those inspired by these examples of augmented reality in action, there are a number of tools that make the process more accessible. Two popular options for the creation of basic augmented reality applications are Layar and Aurasma, each of which offers the ability to create augmented reality content that can then be accessed using free apps for both iOS and Android devices. For developers looking to get started with augmented reality, there are also developer tools available, such as ARToolKit, a free software library that has the added benefit of providing access to several examples of what users have built in the past, and Wikitude, which offers tools to develop applications for iOS, Android and Blackberry 10 devices. For projects with a focus on connecting information to physical locations, GeoStoryteller is another free software option. It can be used with Layar and is the tool that was used in the development of the German Traces NYC project. While the technical skills required for each of these tools vary, they all offer training tools that will make it possible to create an augmented reality application that fits the needs of your library.

Issues to Consider

If these examples have inspired you to use augmented reality at your library, there are some important issues to keep in mind. The first, and most obvious, is that it is important to determine whether your target audience will have access to the device or app that is required to access the augmented reality content. This means making sure that you develop an app for whichever platform is most popular amongst your patrons or offering devices for circulation that have already been set up with the necessary software. Along the same lines, it is important to ensure that your use of augmented reality conforms with your library’s existing policies. For example, if you don’t allow use of cameras or smartphones in certain sections of your library, these are not good locations for augmented reality displays. Finally, it is important to remember that augmented reality displays will need to be updated as changes occur. Existing augmented reality development tools are generally not designed to pull information from other sources, such as your existing website or content management system, making this update process a separate aspect of your library’s general efforts to keep your online presence up-to-date.


While augmented reality may still seem like science fiction, there are already interesting library applications being developed using this technology. It is poised to have a significant impact on library workflows and the way that libraries share information with their patrons. Now is the time to consider how your library can make effective use of this new tool.


[1] "augˈmented, adj.". OED Online. December 2013. Oxford University Press. (accessed January 06, 2014).

[2] Nick Lavars, “iOptik augmented reality contact lens prototype to be unveiled at CES,” Gizmag, (last modified January 6, 2014).

[3] Evena Medical, “Evena Eyes-On Glasses,” (accessed January 8, 2014).

[4] Caroline Williamson, “ Try IKEA furniture in your home with augmented reality app,” Design Milk, (last modified August 13, 2013).

[5] Quest Visual, “Word Lens,” (accessed January 8, 2014).

[6] Liestøl, G. 'Situated Simulations: A Prorotyped Augmented Reality Genre for Learning on the iPhone' in International Journal of Interactive Mobile Technologies (iJIM), Vol 3 (2009).

[7] Jeff Dunn, “How to use augmented reality in education,” Edudemic, (last modified September 26, 2013).

[8] PR Web, “New app makes print textbook pages come to life on a mobile device,” October 14, 2013.

[9] Ricardo Bilton, “Deaf Magazine uses augmented reality to teach readers sign language,” Venture Beat, (last modified September 10, 2013).

[10] ShelvAR, last accessed January 8, 2014.

[11] Sanhita SinhaRoy, “Augmented reality in the (real) library,” American Libraries, (last modified June 29, 2013).

[12] Project Blog of SCARLET, (accessed January 8, 2014).

[13] Jacob Roberts, “The ALA honors five local libraries for offering cutting edge services,” District Dispatch, (last modified January 22, 2013).

Augmented Reality Services and Tools

ARToolKit -

Aurasma -

Daqri -

GeoStoryteller -

Junaio -

Layar -

SCARLET Project -

Wikitude -