Augmented reality, AR to its close friends and acquaintances, is here. On my phone. In my hand. Now.
Long a staple of sci-fi and speculation, real, effective and useful AR for the masses hit the iPhone app store last week. Right now I’m looking at a real time view of the world through my iPhone, and that view is tagged with current and useful information about what I’m seeing. If I search “coffee shop” and point my phone in any given direction, the phone knows where it is, so it can tell me something about what I am looking at. It shows me information about and the approximate location of the coffee shops that are in that direction. But more about that in a second.
Simply put, augmented reality is any technology that overlays virtual information on top of the real world. You look through some sort of device (to date, mobile phones have turned out to have the most traction) with a camera on it, it shows you a view of what it sees, and, combining that view with it’s positional awareness, adds in meaningful information about what you are seeing.
AR’s slightly odd uncle, virtual reality, got a lot of hype in the late ’80s and early to mid ’90s, but turned out to be less than useful and often hokey, (think 1992’s “The Lawnmower Man“), failing to provide users with the realistic, immersive experiences the hype promised, or to have any practical or commercial use (few would be caught dead in the necessary gear). Online experiences like Second Life or MMORPGS are derivative of this tech, but lack the physical interaction that was supposed to define the experience.
AR is something completely different, and infinitely more useful; where VR tracks your real movements through a virtual world, AR tracks your device’s view of and movement through the real world, adding in virtual elements that are tied in with/interact with the landscape (think Tony Stark designing the suit in last year’s “Iron Man“). So the upshot is: you see the real world , but annotated with digital information. It is like tagging real life the way you would tag a Facebook photo.
That means the potential for personal, industrial, commercial and media use is far greater. The proof is already in the pudding. Because anything in the enviornment you want can be overlaid with or linked to web or other digital content, AR can add net like information to the world around you.
And you can try AR right now. On your iPhone. For free.
Several augmented reality apps have been demoed for the iPhone over the past few months, and several have been released on Android and other platforms. But all of a sudden it is here; in the past week a Paris Metro locating app included an AR interface in its most recent update, and then Yelp included hidden as an easter egg in the newest update to its iPhone app, an unlockable AR mode called “Monocle.” All this despite the common wisdom that Apple would not be allowing AR apps into the App Sore for at least a few more weeks, with the release of iPhone OS 3.2, which is expected sometime in September. (As a side note, the iPhone needs to be shaken several times to unlock Monocle. You’ve gotta wonder what the guy who first reported the development was up to).
So despite common wisdom, Yelp and few other apps (so far) have beat developers who have been touting their upcoming AR offerings to the punch. And Yelp really is the perfect starting place. As a prominent localized provider of bar, restaurant and business information, fueled by user reviews, and with over 25 million users a month, Yelp is already collecting, coallating, and through their website and iPhone app providing information about the businesses around you. Now, by adding an AR browser, they are allowing the entire US iPhone userbase to see that information overlaid over the real world. Demonstrations of potential such as this mean that AR is about to go big, and, perhaps more importantly, about to display its true commercial and media potential.
AR is a whole new medium that interacts with the real world in real time. Ok, not that new. Research into the field has been going on since at least the mid ’90s. I know I’ve been reading about the concept, or similar ones, in Sci Fi books like Accelerando by Charles Stross, or Spook Country by William Gibson, or Little Brother by Cory Doctrow; the best and brightest of the genre all saw it coming. I never in a million years thought it would be here so soon.
People, this is going to change your lives, going to change media, going to create markets and outlets for information where none existed before. We are starting to tag not just content, but reality itself. Even those of you not native to the geekosphere have to see how cool that is going to be.
For drivers, AR is a no brainer; you GPS is already most of the way there. It knows where you are and where you are pointed, and can point you in the direction of what you want. But think about looking through your windscreen at this information, seeing an arrow laid out in front of you on the road showing your next turn, and watching tags for McDonald’s and Holiday Inns pass by as you drive down the highway. And NASA is already developing something similar for aircraft, the Highway In The Sky (HITS) display system — arrows pointing to pre-mapped routes in the sky. Believe me, as a pilot, an overlay of that information on the sky in front of me as I navigate would be more than welcome. That, people, is AR in nutshell.
BMW, for example, is working to integrate augmented reality into its service options, creating a do-it-yourself instructional video for maintenance that is seen through a pair of AR goggles — with narration — worn by the owner as he operates under the hood. (It looks like GM is also getting there, and Ford used it in an ad campaign. Baby steps.) Car companies should be at the forefront of this technology, but then again, they’ve had a busy year.
And think of the potential for advertising, which could certainly use a new medium to embrace. You can expect your AR providers to supplement their revenue with real world pop-ups, contextual ads, and the like. Google may provide search and maps, but it is a company driven by advertising revenue, and it is fair to expect AR information companies to follow a similar path to profitability. As you are zooming down that highway, expect to see a thousand foot tall neon sign telling you to “Eat at Joes.”
And then there is the potential for microblogging, wiki-style information aggregation, art installations, microjournalism, and social media (FourSquare, I’m looking at you). The ability to tag the real world with virtual information creates an endless potential for creativity, annoyance, innovation, and the unknown. And you can see it starting right now. All you have to do is shake your iPhone a little bit then see what it shows you.
BMW Augmented Reality [BMW]
Métro Paris application iPhone 3GS avec la réalité augmentée [YouTube]
GE SmartGrid Augmented Reality [GE]
How Augmented Reality Will Work [How Stuff Works]
BMW Augmented Reality Video
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Lawnmower Man, Final Scene:
Ash Kalb is the general counsel of a New York-based telecommunications and technology company and an instrument-rated pilot. He writes on geek culture for Mediaite.
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