The tech that never arrived: whatever happened to augmented reality?

It was the future once. Is it time to get excited again?

While AR has lost some of its initial excitement - for Madden in 2013, "every app, email or press release I received was from a developer releasing something that I'd seen a thousand times before" - it's about to hit the headlines all over again, because a new generation of hardware promises to make AR matter.

This new generation is headed by Google Glass, but AR might work with VR too: it isn't hard to imagine the gaming experiences you might have wearing an Oculus Rift, Project Morpheus or Microsoft's headset.

Then again, Kinect had enormous AR potential too and all we got was dancing and Rabbids, so we're not going to raise our hopes too far.

Of all the incoming hardware, Google Glass is the most interesting: its AR possibilities aren't too far-fetched - its navigation is essentially an AR app, after all - and it's being taken seriously by AR experts.

Firms such as Wikitude, Layar and Metaio, early cheerleaders of augmented reality, are very interested in Glass's potential.

Metaio's Engineer is a good example of AR's usefulness. Designed for industrial use, it can overlay all kinds of data on a real-time camera feed, so for example it might overlay CAD models on an empty site, or highlight specific components in an engine bay.

It's impressive on an iPad, but it would be even more impressive in a set of smart glasses.

Metaio is AR designed for industrial use

Other examples demonstrate both the strengths and the possible weaknesses of AR. Take Layar's slick plans for Google Glass, for example: it shows someone reading a printed magazine, which launches an embedded video and then a scrolling panorama in the corner of their eye.

It's clever, but is that something we actually need or want? Wouldn't it make more sense to have video and panoramas and the rest of the magazine in an iPad app?

Madden shares our concern and warns that the first generation of wearable AR is likely to be a pain in the Glass: while wearables are the stuff of many AR evangelists' dreams, "without doubt developers are doomed to make the same mistakes as the past and we'll be bombarded with find-your-nearest-whatever applications all over again."

"2014 is not the year we all become cyborgs," Madden predicts. He's not too sure about 2015 either.

A change is gonna come

So what needs to change for AR to deliver what we've long been promised? "We'll need to get over the stigma of wearing hardware," Madden says, and while that's likely to become less of an issue in purely fashionable terms - for example tie-ups such as Google's arrangement with Ray-Ban and Oakley owner Luxottica could make Google Glass considerably more attractive, and the possibilities of Android Wear are exciting too – but nice frames don't address the more fundamental issue, which is what problem augmented reality actually solves.

The prospect of AR glasses is exciting, but there's a danger that it could be like the current smartwatch craze, a whole bunch of hardware without a compelling reason to exist.

For AR to become mainstream, Madden says, we need "a killer app that everyone, including your parents, needs if reaching for your AR glasses is to become as natural as picking up your phone."

Whoever comes up with it stands to make a whole lot of money.