Augmented Reality is the shape of things to come

Posted by Tamlin Magee

Ask most 'normals' what they think of Augmented Reality and the response will probably be a 'What?', 'Huh?' or 'Get away from me you terrible nerd.' It does suffer from a name which sounds like a flash in the pan buzzword, and if you say 'AR' you run the risk of sounding like an abbreviation-phile marketing type glued into your suit.

What AR actually is though, is really exciting. It's the kind of technology you'd see twenty years ago in a 'futuristic' sci-fi flick. AR is impressive technology which, while currently in its infancy and lacking particularly useful functionality, could have a really big future ahead of it.

I'll try to describe AR to the best of my ability, via Wikipedia: "Augmented reality (AR) is a term for a live direct or indirect view of a physical real-world environment whose elements are merged with (or augmented by) virtual computer-generated imagery - creating a mixed reality."

An easy example is the Layar application for mobiles. It works via your GPS and Google maps to find out what restaurants, for example, are nearby. Then, using your phone's camera feature, if you point it in a direction your screen will show exactly what you can see, layering a grid system with pointers for restaurants in whatever direction.

It's really cool kit, but will it be anything more than a Bladerunner-esque gizmo to show off to friends?

"We're all cyborgs," says Christian
Christian Howes, Webtrend's Digital Solutions Architect, thinks so.  Citing Sony's motion detection PS3 demonstrations  at E3 earlier this year as an example, he thinks the technology will be significantly gaming-led for consumers.. Readers may also remembered Microsoft's Project Natal Milo demo, in which you talk to a virtual boy who creepily registers your every action without the need for a controller.

"I think we're all cyborgs," said Christian.  "We're all attached to devices which enrich our lives in some way. Augmented Reality will take that connectivity even further." Christian thinks that while AR is in its infancy, we're not so far off the point where it will become a part of everyday life. He told TG Daily that all sorts of high end tech is being developed right now, and it's not going to be a massively long time before the technology will be incorporated into day-to-day items like contact lenses - where information will be layered over what you actually see.

Christian thinks that one of AR's most significant potential uses is through high end vehicles. SatNavs are common place now with a lot of vehicles, and windscreen displays are starting to crop up among the fancier cars on the market. If AR could work through a windscreen to layer information about where you are going, as well as for example how crowded a petrol station is, where you can eat nearby, realtime traffic updates and all sorts of other useful information, cars could prove to be a commercial winner for the technology. The information is already available, it's just a case of bringing it all together and augmenting it over what you can physically see.

Comverse is already working on facial recognition AR. Daphna Steinmetz, Chief Innovation Officer, comments: "Comverse has developed an advanced face recognition algorithm together with the Tel-Aviv College, using years of academic research. The algorithm assumes good conditions of light and limited distance."

Comverse's technology has only been tested against a database of a few hundred faces so far, however in limited lab trials and demonstration in Asia it has generated enormous interest.

Business Cards? Pah
Asking Daphna what use the technology has at the moment, we were told: "We want to use our Social AR as the routine tool to socialise and communicate for all market segments. When you meet a person professionally, in a business event, in a meeting, at a bar or a party, exchanging traditional paper business cards looks as archaic as vinyl records today.

It is so much easier to direct the phone at the remote person, and within a few seconds see on screen the person's name, profession, where they works, hobbies and everything else they have decided to make public through LinkedIn, Facebook or Flickr. With our technology, you will be able to save addresses to your mobile and generate communication all through AR."

While we're not sure that business cards look particularly dated, it's an interesting prospect. And with future developments working to make AR more useable and accessible to the masses, say through a contact lense, all this added augmented information is the stuff of sci-fi.

Tim Ocock, founder of mobile software development company Symsource, thinks that for AR to really take off in the future will be when someone cracks that 'killer' application. Over the next ten years or so, Tim thinks that all the development and research will lead to one drastic breakthrough, followed by AR becoming commonplace.

He says he could see the technology, which he views as a means to an end and not a market sector in its own right, being used in shop windows, with virtual signs displayed over mannekins, tailored directly to the people who are walking past at that moment - for example by gender and age.

While, again, it sounds the stuff of sci-fi, Tim points out that in 1999 Nokia researchers were showing off AR prototypes that as just laboratory work, and now ten years down the line we are seeing consumer AR applications.

It's a long way to go before AR is a truly useful way to present information, says Tim, however when it does reach that 'killer' point it has the potential to greatly improve userbility and functionality of a wide range of products.

Hardware is holding us back
Both Symsource's Tim and Webtrend's Christian agree that the major hurdle AR faces is in hardware constraints. At the moment, it's not going to be commonplace for people to hold their phones up all the time as an example. But down the road, we can expect major developments to bring AR technology to the foreground.

Indeed, as Social Media et al has been dubbed Web 2.0, Scalado’s co-founder Fadi Abbas has said that successfully implemented commercially, Augmented Reality as a technology could be dubbed Marketing 5.0. For example, when the internet really hit the consumer market we were promised easy, instant online shopping through hardware. However, with AR developments, the next way to getting information about products and shopping could be through touch. Could AR eventually have us all so connected in the real world that it could become the ‘new’ internet?

Fadi excitedly pointed TG Daily to an MIT student, Pranav Mistry, and the AR technology he has developed called Sixth Sense  which he describes as “a wearable gestural interface that augments the physical world around us with digital information and lets us use natural hand gestures to interact with that information.”

This basically means that YOU are completely connected to the digital and physical world at once without the need for an intermediary device like a mobile phone. Instead, you wear the device around your neck, and if for example you touch an object and bring it in front of the device, you are able to see information related to it in real time, which can be interacted in using your forefingers in the real world instead of touching the device at all.

It’s this sort of Augmented Reality technology that Scalado really sees as the way forward, expecting similar tech to hit the consumer market in about ten years or so. While Scalado is an imaging company and not particularly working on AR from the ground up, it is exactly these kind of real world implementations that it hopes to help with, structuring images and showing them in a very organized way.

In the interim, before all of this incredible technology starts to surface in the consumer market, will AR as it is make money? Nathalie Gaveau, Digital Business Development Director at Tequila, part of TBWA Group, reckons people will pay for AR apps on their mobile devices as long as it adds real value to them. Right now video and GPS drains a lot of battery life on phones, “but just imagine the new possibilities that your mobile will create in a few years – it will become a portal to meta-information based on your personal location,” says Nathalie.

Andy Wasef, Emerging Platforms Director from MEC Interaction, also believes that people will pay for AR apps, although at current they probably won’t be paying for the AR technology itself, rather that applications which utilise the technology are likely to prove more popular if they do than if they don’t.

Andy comments: “I do think there's room for growth in the utilisation of AR technology for a range of services, including marketing communications.  We're at the very early stages right now and while there's been a lot of hype and examples created this year, in the big scheme of things uptake by the public is tiny.  AR on the Gartner Hype Cycle is approaching the 'Peak of inflated expectations' stage which is about right, and we'll probably see things quiet down for a year or two before the technology becomes more ubiquitous amongst people and then it will see 'proper' growth.”

It seems Augmented Reality is very appealing to both the marketer and the consumer. It will become something we see more of over the years, it’s just a case of waiting for the right developments to slow-drip from the labs into daily life. When it does, we can expect to have the way we interact with people and objects significantly changed forever, for better or worse. Either way, AR is an exciting technology that TG will be keeping a close eye on.