May 30, 2024

To answer the question – yes!

Not in the literal sense, as the historians define ancient history as the period from the 3rd to the 7th century (the Dark Ages), but yes the technology of augmented reality is quite old. The earliest documentation of augmenting reality is in the mid-1500s (16th century) in Naples.

What is Augment Reality (AR) –

AR is defined as an enhanced version of reality where the “real” environment is augmented with superimposed computer generated projections or images over the “real” worldview by the observer, thus changing and enhancing an individuals perception of the reality. Basically, it is an enhanced version of reality which is in-between our “real” reality and virtual reality. It is a mixture, or rather a combination of both the worlds: the one in which we live in (hoping we don’t live in a simulation) and the virtual world.

We all have heard Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), but what is the difference? In simple terms, AR adds an element of the virtual, digital word to our live view of our physical world mainly by the use of our smartphone or camera. For example – Snapchat lenses and filters and the game PokemonGo. VR completely shuts the physical, real world by giving the user a completely immersive experience using devices like Google cardboard or Oculus Rift. These devices take the user to a different world or environment like on the back of a dragon and weaken the user’s sense of reality for the time being — accurately shown in the movie ‘Johnny English Strikes Again’.

Augmented reality needs complex coding and modern technology like smartphones which weren’t available in the 16th century. Then how did AR exist in the 16th century? Were there secret societies that had futuristic technology way ahead of their that time? And do they still exist today?

To answer these questions you need to travel back in time with me to Naples in the mid-1500s, in the peak of the era of The scientific revolution. During this time it was habitual and pretty common for the people of Naples to hear and learn about major scientific breakthroughs like Copernicus’s Heliocentric model in 1543 and Gilbert’s discovery of Earth’s magnetic field in 1600 and Hooke’s discovery of the cell and Boyle’s law of ideal gases and the invention of telescope and the first measurement of the speed of light and Newton’s Principia and the development of calculus (Timeline of Scientific Discoveries). But what was not common was to see an apparition of a ghost on entering a dark room, a ghost that couldn’t possibly be there but a ghost that you could see as clear as day. While there is no evidence of anyone actually creating this illusion in the 16th century, it was certainly possible as the scholar and polymath Giambattista Della Porta wrote about it in 1558.

This famous theatre illusion is called “Pepper’s Ghost”, named after the English scientist John Henry Pepper who popularised the effect in a demonstration in 1862. This illusion works on the basic principles and properties of light we learned in school – reflection.

The key to Porta’s trick was a piece of transparent glass with mirror finish allowing light to pass through (making it see-through) and allowing light to reflect. This glass is placed at an angle between the spectators and the theatre stage, this glass reflects a second hidden room that the spectators cannot see. Once an object or a person is illuminated, their reflection can be viewed in the glass, making it look like that the person or object is on the theatre stage. This technique was mainly used to show ghosts in the theater plays talking, moving, holding objects or even fighting, before slowly dissolving into thin air. The actors wouldn’t be able to see this ghost but the spectators will.


In the late 1850s, 200 years later, engineer Henry Dircks described a similar design to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in context to the theater. In his version, he put an actor in a hidden chamber underneath the audience and illuminated the actor with the limelight. But he never used this technology in the theatre. Later in the 1860s, a chemist names John Henry Pepper modified Dirck’s device by putting the hidden actor down on a slope at the same angle as the mirror to correct for any distortions. Pepper used this on the theatre stages to make ghostly skeletons who would haunt murders and never get wounded by a thrust of their sword or get captured. This technique baffled everyone and got named “Pepper’s Ghost”. Since then this technique is being used and it is still popular in todays world.

Now instead of keeping an actor or an object, people use a projected and pre-recorded video to be displayed as a ghost – like a hologram.

This technique is still used in various sectors like in entertainment and healthcare. This technology has been with us for more than 5 centuries.

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