For artists, technologists, engineers, advertisers and dreamers, augmented reality (AR) is the holy grail of digital experience. This tech promises to make magic real: to manifest whatever we can imagine in physical space.

But we're not there yet. Today, most of what is called AR is not worthy of the name. Rather than being an augmentation of reality, it is a poor facsimile of a powerful idea.

So much more is possible.

In the past few weeks, the world has woken up to the boundless potential of AR to transform how we live, learn, work and interact. Apple's CEO Tim Cook says we will end up wondering how we ever lived without it.

But as we take the first steps into this bright future, it is more critical than ever that we wake up to a fundamental truth: No matter how vivid our digital creations, AR will fall short of its full promise unless and until these can be accurately placed in the real world and, more importantly, fully shareable with others.

It's Not 'Real' if It Can't Be Shared

Imagination is hard-wired into the human psyche. From early childhood, we embellish our outer worlds with elements of our inner lives. But since there is no way for those around us to tap into those private imaginings, they remain wholly subjective and unverifiable.

Whether or not a sensory experience is shared by others has a critical impact on whether we ourselves believe it to be real. If you are the only one in a crowded room to hear a whispering voice, you will feel isolated and strange. You may start to question your own perception — perhaps even your sanity.

But if others around you say they've heard it too, you're back on solid ground. What you've experienced is valid and therefore must be real.

This is what is known as intersubjectivity, the process of sharing knowledge and experiences with others.

Today, the vast majority of AR tech does not support intersubjective experiences. Indeed, it is often little more than gimmicky filters on our solitary devices that are difficult to share.

If I conjure up a fire-breathing dragon in my back garden, there is no way for me to photograph myself with it or to impress you with the breadth of its wingspan. And if I can't share the magic, it becomes no more satisfying than watching a YouTube video that can't be shared or scrolling through Facebook alone.

Shared Magic Is Real Magic

And while AR does have the potential to work real magic — to port the products of our imaginations into the physical world — the examples we have access to today are often no more remarkable than the artificial backgrounds on Zoom.

If we want AR to enable a true augmentation of reality, we need to use tech that supports shared digital experiences in the physical world.

Given AR's potential to transform everything from how we train fighter pilots to how doctors collaborate on cases, it is crucial that we address the issue of shared AR now or important interactive experiences will not be possible.

Positioning, Positioning, Positioning

The answer is surprisingly simple. It all boils down to precise positioning.

Many assume that objects and environments that exist in AR are automatically anchored in a fixed location and that it should be easy for multiple people to experience the same things in the same places. The truth is this is never the case.

There are apps that offer rough estimates of where AR objects are placed in physical spaces but these are nowhere near accurate enough. You and your friend may be viewing the same AR unicorn in all its sparkling detail. But while your device may show it standing solidly by the door, hers may show it floating near the ceiling.

When positioning fidelity is this low, intersubjectivity simply isn't possible. While you may be together, your experience cannot meaningfully be described as a shared reality.

This shortcoming becomes particularly jarring when you and a friend or colleague try to engage in a shared physical activity involving digital equipment. Virtual tennis is an impossibility when the ball is in one place for you and somewhere else for your opponent. The same goes for racing digital cars. The list goes on.

Precise Location Is Key to Shared Experiences in AR

The reason it's been so difficult to position AR objects in physical space until now is that our mobile devices don't share a consistent, precise coordinate system.

It's true that smartphones come equipped with GPS, which does make it possible to establish shared geographical parameters to some degree. But for a host of reasons, GPS is far from exact enough for true intersubjectivity.

GPS may be able to establish that an AR object is in a given house, but not whether it is in the bedroom or bathroom. Never mind whether it is sitting on top of a table or under it.

The logical solution to this would be a more precise version of GPS. That, however, would mean a system that is completely unaffected by those factors that hinder GPS fidelity, which range from signal blockage by physical obstacles to poor weather or even solar storms. Smartphone GPS is usually accurate to within a 4.9-meter radius, but only under a clear sky and away from buildings, bridges and trees.

The near-term fix for AR's location problem is much simpler, and billions of dollars less expensive. Rather than spending years on creating a hyper-accurate coordinate system, we should move away from geographical anchors altogether.

Instead of two devices trying to pinpoint their respective locations on a map, they merely need to establish where they are relative to one another. In other words, rather than relying on a fixed set of coordinates, devices should be equipped with technology that can create shared, one-off coordinate systems on an as-needed basis.

Say you and I want to race our digital Ferraris along a beach. With this technology, all we'd need to do is synchronize our devices so they "agree" on their relative positions. Once they have an accurate sense of where they are in an ephemeral space, shared reality is possible.

The larger-scale, more complex AR environments I foresee in the future may well one day require a universal 3D positioning system that uses powerful consensus algorithms and persistent location anchors.

But for today's augmented reality to be more than a buzzword, we need to focus on precise positioning and the technologies we can use right now to precisely share location and invite others into our enhanced reality. With these tools, we can transform AR from a gimmick into a technology that enhances all of our lives.

(Johannes Davidsson is the Head Of Business Development at Auki Labs, an AR tech company creating a decentralized protocol for collaborative spatial computing.)

The augmented reality glasses can provide information on objects
The augmented reality glasses can provide information on objects AFP / Josep LAGO