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A better life through augmented reality? Really!

AR isn't the next big thing. It's happening right here, right now.

Visitors to the Franklin Institute exhibit “Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor” can point their smartphone cameras at the figures to view details like a bow wielded 2,200 years ago.
Visitors to the Franklin Institute exhibit “Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor” can point their smartphone cameras at the figures to view details like a bow wielded 2,200 years ago.Read moreJONATHAN TAKIFF / Staff

What do the Franklin Institute, Ikea North America Services, QVC, and the Fringe Fest have in common? They're betting on augmented reality — a commingling of the real world we live in with computer-generated imagery that makes the scene better (or weirder) for consumers. Point your smartphone lens at the right spots, and magical extras materialize on the screen, hovering over and complementing the things you expected to see.

A growing phenomenon, with big players like Apple now piling on, AR aims to sell us stuff, to teach and entertain.

Because the engine now driving it is the smartphone already in your hand, augmented reality is far easier to implement than other "enhanced" visual tech — think 3-D and virtual reality, which require sometimes pricey, often clunky, wearable gear to experience.

When the Franklin Institute's director of science content and learning technologies, Karen Elinich, started experimenting a decade ago with AR, "we needed a big computer and a video projector to produce the effects at each exhibit location. Now, there's a far more powerful microprocessor in every visitor's phone."

Starting Sept. 30 and running through March 4, AR has a big role in the Franklin Institute exhibit "Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor."  In its only East Coast appearance, this treasure trove of Asian art casts a loving gaze on large ceramic figures and other artifacts commissioned 2,200 years ago by China's first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, to decorate and guard his tomb and surroundings. The 22-square-mile burial site in Lintong, Xi'an, China, was  rediscovered only 44 years ago and is still being excavated.

The 10 clay warriors and 164 smaller pieces traveling here are too delicate to touch. But with the AR enhancements newly added to the Franklin Institute's smartphone app, visitors can virtually tap on the warriors to restore the missing wooden tools of their trade, such as weapons and musical instruments. Time and climatic conditions long ago turned those sculptural accessories to dust, Elinich said, "but archaeologists have determined what was originally in the warriors' hands, based on indents left in the ground."

For the Franklin Institute, there's special value in AR's "stickiness," said chief digital officer Susan Poulton: The enhancement encourages even the most fidgety visitor to linger longer. "Museum visitors more often look at either an exhibit piece or at the explanation card next to it," said Poulton. AR simplifies seeing both simultaneously. And while a $300,000 grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage covered just the AR enhancements for this exhibit, the platform is now built, and the museum will expand its use to a number of permanent exhibits.

Mobile-phone app-based "Pokemon Go" first established AR consciousness worldwide, sending millions on a quest to find cartoony creatures hiding in their material world. Earlier this month, we skedaddled to a Best Buy to encounter AR-generated characters popping out of posters for the next Star Wars flick, The Last Jedi. And to serve the "Digital Fringe" of this month's Fringe Festival, artist Ellen Chenoweth created an AR app/scavenger hunt, "Links in the Landscape," built on the software program Layar. Users can revisit the locations of past Fringe presentations (Independence Seaport Museum, Arts Bank, Kumquat Dance Studio), point smartphones at the right spots, and experience shows created by Pig Iron, Stepping in Time, and Rennie Harris Pure Movement.

It's another stab to the heart of retail merchants, but there's no denying the efficiency of the AR-based "YouCam Makeup" app that QVC in West Chester recently showcased for its vast TV/online-shopping audience. In a fraction of the time it takes for a department-store makeup specialist to put on a customer's new face, YouCam helps a selfie-camera phone or tablet wielder try on bases, blushes, lipsticks, and eye treatments. The shopping-channel hostess Amy Stran demonstrated the "one-tap try-ons" of selected Laura Geller New York products, helped by YouCam's patented facial-recognition technology, custom skin-tone analysis, and texture/lighting enhancements. QVC said the one-day trial sparked more than 580,000 virtual makeup try-ons.

Having trouble envisioning whether that striped Ikea sofa will cohabitate well with your other furniture? Imagine no longer. Built on Apple's new ARKit technology (launched Sept. 19 on iOS11), the home-furnishings giant is right out of the gate with IKEA Place. It's a free augmented-reality app inviting users to scan their living/office/school space (with an iPhone 6S or newer), then virtually place Ikea furniture in it. All products appear in 3-D and fit in true to scale. You can even take snapshots and videos of the AR-enhanced space and send them to friends for a thumbs-up or -down.

Want to make a detailed floor plan and fill in the furnishings later? There's a new ARKit AR app for that, too — PLNAR, which also just debuted.