Augmented reality has long been a trope of science fiction films. The hero — or villain, depending on the flick — wears a special helmet or sunglasses that provide a constant flow of data overlaid upon their view of the world. They can identify strangers through facial recognition or distinguish a weapon type immediately.
While most of us were still oohing and aahing over touchscreens on phones and Web 2.0 social interactivity, augmented reality snuck up and became, well, a reality. Currently, AR is being used mostly for phone apps and marketing gimmicks, but it’s posed to become the next wave of technology to both wow us and change the way we work and play.
The basic premise is to merge a real-world view with computer-generated imagery. For example, it could overlay an image of a store-filled street with data about those establishments or a piece of machinery with labels of all its parts. And while the data will change according to your view, it isn’t exactly real-time, as the data already exists elsewhere (like a Web site database).
The Current Reality
Google’s Android operating system for smartphones first led the charge into AR apps as it was released with the open application programming interface to accept AR applications. iPhone followed suit with two moves: In June, it added a compass to its 3GS and in September, Apple opened its live-video application programming interface to app developers.
One particular AR app that’s making news is Layar. It overlays information over what the user sees in their smartphone camera view. Layar has smartly taken a hive-mind approach by creating an apps-within-an-app development environment: Others can create new “layers” for the product, which allows users to view everything from restaurant locations to real-estate information.
Other AR apps recently introduced include a Yelp-based app called Monocle; Wikitude, which layers Wikipedia and Qype information about local places, but also employs user-generated content by allowing people to add “points of interest” for all to see; Trulia, a real-estate information app; and London Bus, an app that aptly helps people navigate the London transportation system.
As you can tell, much of the innovation in this area has to do with local, place-based information. It’s a natural union. Localized data on restaurants, sites and businesses is exactly the type of data a user would want while on the go; this information is already in abundance on the Web; and the GPS and internal compass in phones provide a way for developers to match data and reality.
Two other industries are also seeing the immediate benefits of AR using webcams: The toy industry and marketing industry. Both have developed products that users place beneath a webcam. A special tag is “read” by a particular Web site or software and a virtual model or image appears animated on screen, which the user may have limited control over via “buttons” on the tag.
The Future Reality
While these apps have a definite gee-whiz niftiness, this is still an extremely young technology with issues. GPS on smartphones isn’t exact; your iPhone app may show a restaurant right in front of you that’s really a storefront or two to the east. Utilizing your phone as a live camera and GPS turns your phone into a battery-eating monster.
However, AR advancements are being made at a phenomenal speed. As this article was being written developers took another leap forward by hacking the iPhone’s application programming interface to actually analyze the live-video stream. Rather than overlay data on top of a video based on GPS coordinates, this means developers can actually analyze the video data to present information.
Another company is exploring facial recognition. Imagine pointing your phone at someone and having their social networking information pop up (with their permission, of course). One Layar “layer” shows you Tweets from nearby users. All of the social aspects of the Web that have matured in these past few years — Tweets and Facebook profiles and social reputation sites like Reddit — can be mashed up with real-life, real-time imagery and then remixed into entirely new uses via AR.
Once this technology has moved from the nascent stages to everyday use, the possibilities are endless. In the meantime, however, phone apps are where the augmented reality is really happening and social networks, travel companies, and anyone with information that can be localized, personalized, socialized, and remixed should assign a young*, hungry developer to this task, stat.
*It was an intern who created the first Yelp AR app.