Augmented reality: Your world, enhanced
Smart phones lead the way in augmented reality, blending real life with digital imagery.
Sarah Beth Glicksteen/The Christian Science Monitor
Are you ready to see with âTerminatorâ eyes? That day may be coming closer.
The Terminator android from the future, as portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger in movies, employs enhanced vision that displays data about his surroundings, such as identifying objects, what they are used for, and how they work. âTerminatorâ vision even identifies people and suggests what to say to them.
This year has seen a huge spike in interest in the concept of âaugmented realityâ (AR) â the ability to blend data or virtual objects from the Internet with the âreal worldâ we see around us. The question now is whether 2009 will be a tipping point toward a time when AR is routinely all around us, or whether itâs a bubble of overheated hype that pops and disappears.
Perhaps the biggest change driving AR has been widespread adoption of smart phones, such as the iPhone and those based on Googleâs Android platform. These devices possess the technology needed to create a simple (some would say primitive) form of AR. By combining video cameras, GPS (global positioning systems), and compasses, smart phones can figure out their own location and in which direction they are being pointed.
That has allowed developers to begin sending virtual data to âaugmentâ whatâs displayed by the phoneâs camera. Point the camera up a street, for example, and the screen would show the scene with other information âlayeredâ on top, such as restaurant descriptions, where the subway stops are, or which apartments are for rent.
The idea of âaugmented reality has been around for a long, long, long time,â says Dana Farbo, president of acrossair.com in New York City. Labs have been tinkering with it for decades. âHeads upâ display screens in airplanes and even autos are already in use. Even the yellow âfirst downâ line shown on televised football games is a form of AR â itâs not really on the field, it has been added digitally, augmenting the view.
But now AR is âbeing unleashed from basement computer labs around the world into the commercial world,â says Ori Inbar, whose Games Alfresco blog tracks developments in the fast-changing AR world.
Acrossair offers an iPhone app that allows users in certain cities to see information about the nearest subway stop when they point their phone in any direction. The app (cost: $1.99) is available for more than a dozen cities, including New York, London, and Tokyo.
But the app doesnât really âseeâ the street in front of it. The program simply uses the GPS and compass to figure out where it is and presents information about what its database says is near those map coordinates.
Thatâs caused some critics to scoff that such apps donât represent âtrueâ AR, which would recognize what is being seen in the real world by the camera (such as a building or a person) and respond with related virtual content, such as text or images.
âWeâre still at the beginning. What weâre doing now is very simple,â says Maarten Lens-FitzGerald, cofounder of Layar.com, based in Amsterdam. Over time, he says, his company will be âadding more tools so people can do more.â
Layar provides a platform for developers to create AR phone apps. The companyâs website shows more than 200 phone apps with AR experiences on them. One, for example, displays background information about windmills in Holland when the phone is pointed toward one. In another, tourists wandering the fields of France with smart phones can see an overlay of the locations of World War I trenches, now overgrown and hard to spot, highlighted on their screen.
In Britain, one app identifies the species of trees as people wander through the famous Kew Gardens. In the United States, an In-N-Out Burger app kicks in when one of the popular fast-food restaurants is nearby.
About 400,000 people have downloaded the Layar phone browser (available only for Android-based phones for now) in the past few months, Mr. Lens-FitzGerald says, while more than 1,000 developers are working on new AR âlayersâ for it.
Esquire magazineâs December issue demonstrates another way of using AR that is also booming â though it, too, is being disparaged by some as a mere gimmick.
When the Esquire cover is viewed by a computer webcam, special software kicks in. Rather than showing the static cover image of Robert Downey Jr., the computer plays a video of the actor talking about his latest film. In an AR feature inside, a fashion model will change his clothes for a new season of the year as a page is held toward the webcam. Show another page to the camera and an actress springs to life on your computer screen to tell a joke. She tells a ânaughtyâ joke if the page is viewed after midnight.
A French company, Total ImÂmerÂsion, has designed football and baseball trading cards for Topps that âcome aliveâ when held up to a computer webcam. When viewed on a computer screen, 3-D versions of the players appear to stand on top of the card and perform some basic movements, mirroring the userâs actions.
Action figures from the new fantasy movie âAvatar,â coming in December, include special tags. When they are held up to a webcam, a 3-D figure of the toy appears on-screen and performs various movements controlled by the user.
Such uses for entertainment and games âare going to be the biggest marketâ in the near future, Mr.
But more practical uses are on the way, too. In an AR program available online from the US Postal Service, customers hold an object they want to mail up to their webcam. The computer screen displays a virtual mailing box of the appropriate size that appears to surround the object, helping the customer choose the right box.
Still, itâs the long-range potential of AR that continues to hold the most excitement.
William Hurley, known to his fans online as âwhurley,â is a longtime AR advocate in the high-tech community. He recently left his tech-industry job to focus full time on developing new AR applications.
One concept, which he calls âmassive multiplayer in-world games,â would bring computer games, in the mode of the hugely popular World of Warcraft, into the real world, augmenting it with digital characters or sounds.
Whatâs holding back the field right now, whurley says, is the hardware. AR goggles and glasses, and even an AR contact lens, are under development, but there are still hurdles to leap before they will be practical. Another need is to find a more precise and reliable way than GPS to determine oneâs location.
True AR could lead to advancements in many fields. Soldiers on the battlefield, auto mechanics, and surgeons, for example, all need more information in front of their eyes than they currently can get.
Social applications may be a natural early step. In the future, âYou could hold up your phone in a crowded room and see how many of your Facebook friends are there,â says Scott Smith, a technology forecaster for Changeist, a market-research company in North Carolinaâs Research Triangle.
Or the phone might identify who among the others present is the business contact youâve been looking to talk with, whurley adds. âThat gives an incredible advantage, does it not?â he says.
The number of ways AR could be used âis probably nearly infinite,â Mr. Smith says. AR will become âcommonplaceâ in the future, he adds, though individuals will always be able to decide how much they want to use it.
Weâll decide âwhether we want to see naked reality or augmented reality,â he says, just as some drivers today choose to use a GPS system to find where theyâre going and others donât.
As with other new technologies, âsome people may find [AR] disturbing,â whurley says, as it alters what people see as they look at the world around them.
Smith agrees. âIâm sure weâll have psychologists and sociologists and educators wringing their hands quite soon about how no one appreciates ârealityâ anymore,â he says.
Videos provide an easy way to see AR in action. Click here for five examples of augmented reality.