The term ‘augmented reality,’ or AR, is used to describe technology that enables normal sight to be modified or enhanced by a computer, allowing data on an object in the field of view to be displayed alongside it, or to add objects or menus that aren’t really there to ‘augment’ your normal senses. If this all sounds a long way off to you, you need look no further than your smartphone’s app store to find a host of smartphone apps currently in use that use augmented reality to some extent, using the phone’s camera.
The most basic example of augmented reality that we are all familiar with is the score in the top corner of the screen in any televised sport. What you are seeing is reality but with extra information superimposed. In this rudimentary example however, the information does not interact that much with the footage, other than being updated when a goal is scored. If a computer can accurately identify objects in the field of view however, the real footage and the digital overlay can interact in far more immersive ways. The question is, how do you make computers ‘see’?
The Nintendo 3DS uses cards for its augmented reality content. If you place an AR card on a table the 3DS’s camera recognises the card and its orientation and inserts Nintendo characters onto your screen to do battle on the table top. This works just like QR codes for your smartphone, as a kind of visual barcode for your device’s camera- each card represents a different character or action. This kind of content will become a standard feature of handheld gaming in 2012.
AR cards and QR codes are some examples of how in 2012 our world will become increasingly ‘computer readable’, allowing computers to identify objects and interact with them.
But these ‘visual barcodes’ are not the only way that computers are getting better at interpreting the world, as various branches of computer vision improve, and computers begin to recognise faces and read text.
Want to see the world like a robotic assassin from the future? There’s an app for that. The Cyborg Vision app for the iphone replicates the Terminator’s computer vision scarily well. If you train your camera on a friend’s face, the app recognises who it is and displays information about them alongside their picture on the screen in real-time, using data from your facebook and facial recognition software.
Another impressive AR app is Word Lens, an app that uses your phone’s camera to read signs in other languages and translate them in real time in the same font and colour so that they fit the original sign.
The object recognition in these AR apps is pretty impressive, but as the world around us becomes more ‘computer readable’, and the AR apps get smarter, are we doomed to constantly view the world through a smartphone screen in 2012?
Not necessarily, as AR ‘smart glasses’ will become available as early as this autumn from Vuzix, developed in collaboration with Nokia, who unveiled their new technology at this years Consumer Electronic Show (CES).
“Initially they will have applications in the industrial and defence sectors,” Paul Travers, CEO of Vuzix, told Humans Invent. “Fire and safety applications include enabling fire fighters to see through blinding smoke through body heat signatures and other special sensors. Engineers will be able to view technical data and instructions, hands-free and on-location, without the distraction of using a remote computer or manual.”
These smart glasses will make AR displays more integrated into your experience than on a smartphone, which boast displays of 720p, and even have 3D support. Sounds impressive, but how do they work?
“This amazing new technology starts with a compact display engine capable of high contrast and brightness suitable for outdoor use. The output then gets relayed into a see-through 1.4 mm thin clear polymer waveguide lens with input and output hologram structures on the surface. The light is squeezed down the waveguide and then two dimensionally expands back into the user’s eye, creating an image that is then mixed and overlaid onto their real worldview. ”
Gamers will not be disappointed with what Vuzix smart glasses have to offer them, “instead of watching a video game on a flat panel, the characters literally appear in your living room with bad guys climbing over your couch as if they were actually there or a bowling alley that is in your living room in full 3D.” says Paul Travers.
The Vuzix smart glasses could be a game changer in the field of AR if they can replace screens, Travers explains, “In the past, AR has been limited to a 3rd-person view where AR content is seen from the perspective of a mobile phone held in front of your eyes. These adaptations lacked the reality aspect of seeing the world and AR content from your own, 1st-person, viewing perspective.”
And you wont need to worry about lugging around a headset, as the smart glasses are no more bulky than a regular pair of shades. “The power of AR glasses will be limitless with the right software behind them,” says Travers. With this technology scheduled for release this year, 2012 really could be the beginning of quite a different world, one where the full functionality of objects is only accessible through AR, as the world we see becomes more computer readable.
The automotive industry is surely one that will benefit from ‘head-up’ displays, and at CES, Mercedes-Benz did not disappoint, showing off their new augmented reality windscreens. While these look impressive, they are still a few years away from becoming a standard feature, and still face many challenges. It’s clearly a good idea to have the speedometer integrated into the windscreen, keeping eyes on the road, but advertising, emails or almost anything else would be a distraction from driving, and developers are consequently walking a narrow line. GPS systems however will benefit from augmented reality in 2012, with apps like Wikitude Drive laying your route on top of footage from your phone’s camera.
The pervasiveness of AR in 2012 really depends on how good computer vision gets, but as we increase our use of robot-readable signs and labels, it seems we are meeting computers half way. But might the fact that we are viewing the world through a screen, even in the case of the smart glasses, be a stumbling block for AR?
“There is clearly a role for augmented reality to show us knowledge we cannot see, yet wherever augmented reality is used the user is watching the world through a screen,” says Nathan Miller, Insight Curator for Crayon, consumer insight agency. “The best technology, as with magic, doesn’t let you know it’s there as the interface dissolves. So we might see augmented reality as a stepping stone technology to a point in time when fully 3D holograms are cheap enough to put everywhere.”
Getting rid of the screens may be on the horizon, as last year bioengineers at the University of Washington created the first contact lenses with an electronic display. The display only contains one pixel, and so far they’ve only tested it on rabbits, so we won’t be seeing AR lenses in 2012.
While AR technology may be transient in nature, it will have many applications in 2012, and furthermore, it is yet another example of how the digital and the ‘real’ will continue to converge in the future.
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