Following the recent hullabaloo surrounding Google’s ‘Project Glass’, augmented reality has once again been marked as the next ‘big thing’, and a technology that will before long be playing a significant role in our day-to-day lives.
If you’re not sure what augmented reality means or seen how it works - imagine looking through a camera lens at your dreary ‘real’ world, but instead of the grinding misery of real life, you see an overlay of bright computer generated images.
If this description still leaves you clueless, then take a quick look at this video of the Word Lens in action and place a cushion on the floor to protect your falling jaw.
The Science Museum last week made available an augmented reality application for iPhone. The James May Science Stories doubles as a museum tour guide.
The app works by pointing an iPhone camera at marker points which appear on information plinths next to nine of the exhibits in the Making the Modern World Gallery - an impressive collection boasting some of the most exciting innovations in the shaping the modern world, from early steam engines to the first home computers. A CGI James May (you know, the vaguely bearable, floppy haired one from Top Gear) then appears on your screen and starts reeling off information about what you are looking at.
The nine exhibits selected from the galleries expansive collection include; the world’s oldest steam train, an X-Ray machine from 1896, the world’s first supercomputer, a gun-making lathe, a Model T Ford and half a Mini.
On paper this sounds like a brilliant idea - James May is a great choice for the subjects in question. The script is interesting, funny and goes far beyond the information on the placards by the exhibits. In theory this should make the already tremendously enjoyable exhibition even more fun and open up these wonderful innovations to a mainstream audience. But it doesn’t.
In use, the augmented reality was difficult to get working and the software was so infuriatingly glitchy that using the app made being in the gallery a wholly miserable experience.
When you arrive at a marker point it isn’t a case of simply pointing your phone at the marker and everything happening for you, the app requires that you go through numerous menus and manually select the guide you want to hear.
Next came the gruelling task of getting the marker in focus on your screen, which in all cases involved crouching on the floor and lots of tinkering to get James properly in shot. Once this was achieved it was only ever a matter of time before someone else in the gallery walked between you and the plinth. All of this meant that more time was spent messing around with the augmented reality than paying attention to what James was actually saying.
Once the art of keeping James still had been mastered another hazard made itself known - concerned parents thinking that their children were being filmed by a crouching stranger on an iPhone. Explaining what augmented reality is to an angry father who may have never even watched Top Gear is no way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
Most of the features in this app seem rather excessive, and when you realise it’s possible to listen to the audio without a birds-eye-view of a Top Gear presenter it’s arguable that watching James May prance around a tiny screen banging on about an X-Ray machine isn’t a particularly worthwhile use of augmented reality.
That said, the app might encourage those unlikely to go and see the exhibit to walk past the far more popular Natural History Museum and see these astonishing feats of engineering and innovation for the first time. The content is equally as interesting for children as it is for adults, but being an educational tool is probably more fun for children to use - not least because being small and young, crouching won’t be such an issue.
It’s just a huge shame that by the time you’ve visited the nine exhibits, the fiddly technology and hamstring strain from hours of crouching will have made you so furious that leaving the museum feels as liberating as ending a prison sentence. A prison sentence you’ve paid £1.99 for.