The Incredible New World of Augmented Reality
Augmented Reality, technology that superimposes computer generated media on the real world, is one of the most exciting things happening today. In fact the progress being made is hard to believe.
The concept is an old one, 3D images projected into reality have been a staple of Science Fiction for years. Whether it was Princess Leia beckoning to Obiwan Kenobi in Star Wars or characters interacting with manufactured environments in the “holodeck” on Star Trek, seeing computer images interact with the real world in movies is something we’ve grown accustomed to. However, actually being able to use the technology has always seemed a long way off.
The future is coming fast! Very cool and useful Augmented Reality applications are launching right now and we’ll be seeing the technology continue to develop for decades.
Early Augmented Reality
Among the first baby steps for Augmented Reality were computer generated graphics in televised sporting events. From computer generated advertisements on the field to superimposed “halos” highlighting a single player or race car, the graphics were fundamentally different from what we’d seen before. They appeared to interact with their environment. As the camera’s perspective changed so did the appearance of the image, making it look and feel as if it were part of the action.
There have also been less publicized, but more sophisticated uses of the technology in the military and manufacturing. Soldiers can wear helmets that have important information such as maps, enemy positions, etc. 3D representations are used in oil and mineral exploration. Furthermore, modifying virtual models of products such as cars enable companies to shave millions of dollars off of development costs.
Presently, the technology is becoming good enough, small enough and cheap enough to use in our daily lives.
Augmented Reality Comes to the Mobile Phone
With reasonably powerful processors and GPS embedded in mobile phones, the ability to superimpose media on the world around us is being deployed in iPhone and Android applications. As you move the camera around, information is superimposed on the image. Robotvision shows the possibilities in this video.
Robotvision is not the only one company rushing out with exciting applications.
Yelp.com has recently come out with an iPhone product that incorporates information about restaurants, stores and the like onto whatever you see through your camera. You can also click through to find reviews, promotions, sales and so on.
Wikitude will offer a similar service that uses Wikipedia data to superimpose information about the world around us. For instance, as we stroll through a city we will be able to pan our mobile phone around and find historical buildings, facts about them, etc.
Other Upcoming Augmented Reality Products
While the mobile phone applications will be undoubtedly rolled out the fastest and will be the most widely adopted, many other exciting things are happening as well. Here is a video of a product that will enable e-commerce by allowing users to “try on” clothes over the internet.
Other applications are ready or near ready. From virtual user manuals that can be projected on complicated machinery to video games that involve players in the action. The technology is moving astoundingly fast!
Agora Media, a digital agency, presents 17 new applications on their site.
Another technology that is not strictly Augmented Reality, but will figure in its future is Microsoft’s Photosynth. It links together hundreds or even thousands of images to render a 3D model that can be navigated almost effortlessly. Blaise Aguera y Arcas gave a very impressive demo of Photosynth at the TED conference. You can see it here. (It’s about 10 minutes long).
The Photosynth technology will allow us to build 3D models of real places simply by using photo databases. Increasingly, we will be able to interact with those models in virtual environments.
The Trends Driving the Future of Augmented Reality
While the new technology is dazzling, we have every reason to expect vast improvements due to trends in supporting technologies.
Processor Speed: Moore’s Law continues to hold up, although the existing methods will have run their course in a decade or so, new processes will be developed that will continue to increase chip efficiency and drive down cost. The most likely solution is Quantum Computing, but there are other ideas as well.
Bandwidth and Memory: These two crucial components are, if anything, advancing even faster than processing speed. We are rapidly moving into and age of virtually free bandwidth and memory.
Nanotechnology: Through altering molecules at the atomic level, new materials are being invented. Nanotech will be used to miniaturize components to the microscopic level and engineer new atomic level machinery that can extend battery life and resolution of 3D images.
Holographic Technology: Among other uses, holographic technology will be used to project 3D images into the real world rather than just incorporate the graphics on screen.
(For more on these trends, see 3 Trends That Will Drive the Digital Future).
Our Sci-Fi Future
As the technologies described above continue to improve, we will be able to interact with computer generated objects in the real world. By combining ultrasound with holograms, researchers have created touchable 3D media
Augmented reality will open up whole new worlds of productivity, entertainment and virtual products. It’ll be exciting to watch it all unfold.
Researchers are working on a plethora of new ideas. The National Tele-Immersion Initiative is working on 3D teleconferences. A true, global rock concert where audiences around the world can interact with each other is different only in scale.
“Virtual” windows will give real life views of the street outside to previously walled in apartments. Virtual, 3D blueprints will be created in real time. Engineers at the site can collaborate with architects far away, with not only real data, but as if they were in the same place. These are just a few of the applications underway.
Although much of this might seem like science fiction, these are all projects that are being actively invested in. Most of the difficulties are ones of cost and scale rather than technology. Those are problems that tend be overcome with time and will most likely get solved faster than we think.