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What Is AR & How Can It Change the Way We See the World?

Posted: 27/11/11 14:16

Ok. So T1000 walks into a bar. As data streams down his field of vision about the people around him he registers status updates, re-tweets and foursquare reviews. Comical non-starters aside, a perceivable data stream is essentially what Augmented Reality (AR) is. Tom Caudell, a researcher for Boeing, coined the term Augmented Reality in 1990. Caudell envisioned a technology that would assist engineers constructing planes: The engineer would wear a head-mounted unit that displayed the electrical systems of the aircraft they were working on. To put it simply, AR is the marrying of the digital and the physical world. Twenty years on, this concept is still being pursued. If this technology were available today, it would probably look something like this:

A consumer views a Starbucks coffee cup through their smartphone camera. The smartphone decodes the information embedded into the cup and the consumer perceives bubbles of information on their phone screen displaying which beverage is in the cup, how much it costs, the franchises opening times, calorific content, etc.

Starbucks actually have done something like this in North America with their Christmas cups.

In a way, we already live in a reality that is augmented. The portability and power of smartphones, along with geo tagging, live status updates and foursquare, could be interpreted as evidence of the unification of the digital and physical world; human beings are connected by our communication and social networking habits and the devices we use to feed them.

However, true AR requires the perception of reality to be augmented and trials at an American university have brought this one step closer. This university has been developing smart contact lenses that can project text onto the front of the eye. The major stumbling block is power. At the moment, the lens will only work within a few centimetres of its power source. Smart contact lenses are a few years off yet, but the important thing to note is that they have successfully managed to develop a membrane as thin as a contact lens for displaying digital information.

Although AR contact lenses are not ready for mass use, our existing devices (smartphones, games consoles, etc) are being developed to take advantage of the emergence of AR. Nintendo and Sony are developing games and devices that employ this technology, but AR gaming is a subject for another blog. If you are curious, the links below will take you to information about AR gaming. The app store and android marketplace have also made available apps like Layer and an app for the Green Box Project.

Layer is described as a layered reality browser. It is an immersive yellow pages which employs your smartphone's camera and GPS to get your location and overlays information (specified by you) onto the world seen through your phone. The drawback of this app is the data is not very reliable and walking around the streets with your smartphone in front of your face is likely to result in kerb malfunction.

Beck's, the beer company, have also been experimenting with AR. The Green Box Project has installed large green cubes in cities around the World. Artists are commissioned to produce art that is encoded onto these green cubes. To view the art, you download the app and point your smartphone at the cube. The app software decodes the information encoded on the cube allowing the viewer to see the digital art.

Over the last decade, the aesthetic of design has become a major factor in the advancement of technology. An AR contact lens is an interesting and discreet development but people don't like to put things in their eyes, so for the future of AR it is better to focus on the development of a membrane as thin as a contact lens that can display digital information. What this means is AR glasses could be made to look like designer sunglasses keeping the technology both discreet and stylish.

A technology that provides information without the need for a bulky tablet pc or a clipboard could revolutionise hospitals. Doctors with access to your medial history could peruse your medical details while performing a diagnosis helping providing a quicker and more thorough diagnosis and treatment. Or imagine a program to help those who are hard of hearing; an AR live subtitling program would mean special screenings of the latest blockbuster would be unnecessary. Of course, these are just potential uses that I imagine could be achieved with AR and the application of this tech would require some heavy security protocols.

Unfortunately because social networking a major communications hub, I think the first AR glasses/contact lenses will be designed to be used as a social networking tool, combining the futuristic appeal of AR with the need to stay digitally networked to our friends and followers. Outside of video game circles, the misguided application as a social networking tool will turn AR into another white elephant. But through understanding the fundamental principle of AR we can explore its true potential and make a significant leap in the way we communicate with each other. But what do you think, what would you do with a pair of AR glasses?

 

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