Augmenting your views of reality

JPR contributing analyst Andy Marken takes us on a wild ride through the world of augmented reality, where all is more or less than it appears.

By Andy Marken

To us, augmented reality (AR) has been an engineering project in the works for years…always almost ready to productize and dress up for normal folks.

“On the other side of the screen, it all looks so easy.”-- Kevin Flynn, Tron (1982), Walt Disney

Good enough for special uses—you know, service/support, medicine—but we’re more interested in the mainstream, money play. So we looked forward to seeing what’s new in AR at the recent 6Sight conference.

Most of the time when you see a “personal” AR system it’s some dude with a big backpack and a funky pair of glasses (and you think 3D glasses look bad?).

Getting AR compact enough for people to use in the real world has been a continuing work in progress for academics and engineers. The technology has been stabilized but still requires a backpack system and special glasses to enable individuals to enjoy it. However, apps are changing the way most people view and use AR tags.

Cool glasses? (Source MIT)

The only near normal people we knew who used AR fairly regularly were gamers but… For gawdz sake, they live in the virtual world!! There’s a whole new breed of games for people willing to strap on their headsets, helmets, paraphernalia to get “outside” assistance. You know, directions, distances, arsenal status, stuff designed to help our son immerse himself in the game and confuse us.

As Lora observed, “Now you can see why all his friends are 14 years old!”

Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology have used AR to improve/enhance mobile gaming (of course Qualcomm, Nvidia and a few others are funding their work). But we were more interested in interactive media and how it would impact and be used by real people.

It turns out AR—good AR—isn’t something that makes you go WOW!!…it’s just there.


First and Ten

Sports broadcasters have been using AR technology for years to make the viewing more interesting, more fun, easier to follow. Such enrichment will soon be commonplace on content viewed on your smartphone.

Now that we know AR isn’t all backpack and glasses, you realize it is pretty heavily used in sports coverage: baseball, soccer, swimming, skiing, golf, skating; rugby, football. Stats appear on the screen; ads change on billboards and the field; information on teams and play action enhances your enjoyment.

So that’s AR…useful, helpful, “almost” natural.

That’s the way all technology should be… there, normal. Blending the virtual and real. And there’s a growing mountain of good stuff bringing the real, virtual worlds together because:

  • Screens are everywhere today. Some applications require the special glasses, but more and more do not.
  • AR has the potential of bridging the use of traditional devices—computers, tablets—to become interactive solutions that change their shape, appearance for the task or need.
  • AR can take you to virtual surround events and holographic viewing.
  • It could enable holographic video conferencing (being there, here).
  • By inserting information into your driving environment, travel would be more entertaining/informative than today’s audio navigation systems.
  • Virtual artwork or windowed views of your favorite sites, locations can be displayed, changed on a whim.
  • Signage/software is available now to change billboards, ads, signs as you walk by or to enable interaction and appeal to your specific wants/needs/goals.

Gee, there really are some solid benefits to AR beyond video games.

The best use of the technology will be in AR-enriched, interactive learning. Young brains are already wired differently because of the many outside/online inputs/influences. Given the tools, information and challenges, they’ll learn more, be more involved in their own learning.

As the Master Control Program said, “No one User wrote me. I’m worth millions of their man-years!”

The concept is slowly being implemented in the digital signage arena where entertainment and education are being blended. Museums, art studios, zoos, aquariums, planetariums and similar public venues are using interactive screens to give visitors expanded information to enrich the experience. People are able to enjoy, learn about life under the sea or our surrounding solar system with facts and information that make the learning experience fun. Almost as good as being there!

Try Before You Buy

The technology is also getting a big boost in our everyday lives from marketing and advertising.

Online and in-store AR solutions allow consumers to get a first-hand view of a product before they buy. The solution has also been increasingly used by designers in finishing rooms for clients. Prospective homeowners find AR technology also makes it easier to purchase homes that are hundreds of miles away by being able to visualize their furniture in the house they view online.

The fashion industry found AR effective in their online and print ads. By using a computer, webcam and the app, people can “try on” clothes, see if they like the look and order it knowing they’re going to be pleased when they receive the goods.

Fewer “surprises,” fewer returns.

And fewer times Sark will say, “Bring in the logic probe!”

The fashion folks have begun adding AR symbols in their print ads. Hold the ad up to the webcam and it takes you to videos, pictures, and interactive games to strengthen their relationship with the consumer/user.

Adidas did something similar with their training shoes by printing an AR symbol inside the shoe tongue. Hold the symbol to the webcam and you can take part in exclusive interactive games on the company’s website. It won’t save the planet and isn’t a cure for the common cold; but it’s smart social marketing!

Beyond the Webcam

OK, so the webcam is “a little” awkward; but since AR uses Flash (like 98% of the websites), it couldn’t immediately be used with an iPhone (something about Steve not liking Adobe).

Then Skyfire, the new AR-enhanced browser for iPhone and Android changed that for those folks lucky enough to download it before the demand brought the servers to their knees and it had to be pulled.

Don’t worry, even though Flash is “totally worthless,” the app will be available again as soon as they can add a few more servers. But that’s a moot point because there are a growing number of smartphone—iPhone and Android—apps available that use AR to meld your real/online world.

Prepare Before Entry: The growing use of geotags, detail sourcing and online reviews make it fast and easy for smartphone users to check out entertainment, accommodations and events in almost any city to ensure he/she will get what they want. Similar online/on phone solutions enable you to review retailers, products, services before you make your purchase.

These apps rate places of entertainment, restaurants, hotels. Simply point, click, add some specifics and the information appears on your phone screen.

Apps are available to help you find your car in a parking lot, find WiFi hotspots, use your phone GPS to not find your way from point A to point B. They can even check for bathrooms, coffee shops, stations, other locations along the way.

With geotagging and increasingly open communications becoming more pervasive, it’s going to be easier to pinpoint the outlets that have the specific product size/color/price you want as well as the quality of service/support offered by the manufacturer and retailer.

You’ll be able to check all store and product reviews to make a very informed buying decision.

Military aircraft have made significant strides by projecting all of the plane’s and surrounding information on the pilot’s helmet screen to give him or her an edge.

That’s great, but somehow moving that technology to our car windshield seems a little overwhelming.

Driver Knowledge: Engineers and designers are already testing AR projections on car windshields that will give drivers a wide range of information about their driving and surroundings -- much like today’s military pilots have available to them on their maneuvers. The difference is, the most dangerous part of any flight is the drive to/from home; and all of the added information available to us may put more than a few of us in information overload.

Before it was against the law, we tried dialing our cellphone while driving… impossible (especially the way we drive). We know the auto industry is working with AR technology to provide better information to the driver and it will be an option, then standard, in a few years.

Imagine how much worse the other guy will be with all that additional information/assistance.

AR On-the-Go

At last year’s TED conference MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interface Group showed us one of the best “Ah Ha!” AR applications we’ve seen (the video of the demo is on the TED site).

The demo was a lanyard camera, mirrors and colored finger caps to project data, video, image information onto a surface in front of you. Its a little ways off, but so cool!

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realize that soon you’ll want to take your camera and your phone with you constantly.

Point of View: Informational, educational and entertainment digital signage solutions such as this interactive BrightSign digital signage installation at the Monterey Aquarium are being installed in venues of all types from hospitality, healthcare, retail, museums, aquariums, and zoos.

Imagine bumping into someone you haven’t seen for some time (and should know) and instantly being able to have all of his/her information—name, company, title, life/family history—instantly in front of you. Heck, you’ll be able to walk around a new town or area like a native, getting the answers even before you think of the question.

There’s a lot of practical (and impractical) potential for AR beyond better game play.

Your great thoughts/ideas will never have to worry about the MCP saying, “Your user can’t help you now, my little program!”


Andy Marken is a Contributing Analyst for Jon Peddie Research.