Reality gets a makeover

Read time 6min 20sec

Augmented reality (AR), once seen as a highly-specialised or novelty application, is now set to radically reshape people's interaction with their immediate surroundings.

Steve Prentice, VP and fellow at Gartner, says the increased availability and sophistication of mobile devices is leading to new possibilities for AR applications.

“Most smartphones these days come with sensors, a camera accelerometer, GPS and even a compass, plus a decent screen, providing a lot of sensory inputs other than just the key pad. It knows where you are, which direction you're travelling in, and with 3G coverage you can get lots of data - all this is leading up to a whole raft of AR-type apps,” he says.

Broadly speaking, augmented reality involves the overlaying of digital information onto the real-world environment, essentially augmenting the user's perception of reality. Several current apps leverage AR capabilities, such as Google Goggles and Nokia's Point and Find, but as devices become smaller and more powerful, AR technology has the potential to turn almost any physical space into a digitally connected, interactive environment.

Kari Pulli, research fellow and leader of Nokia's Visual Computing and Ubiquitous Imaging team, says AR makes more sense on mobile than on desktop, because it allows the user to interface with their surroundings, wherever they may be.

He points out that AR has already been used in applications such as museum guides, which are technically easier as these are limited environments with a ready catalogue of images, a description for each object, and a data base of information small enough to reside on the device itself.

“Taking this further, a similar idea could be a tourist information system, where the whole city becomes an interactive environment. But this is obviously much more difficult.”

Pulli explains there are technical considerations, such as changes in lighting, weather and seasons, as well as in the built environment, including new buildings and billboard ads. “Also, the size of the data base needed to store all this information would have to be much larger.”

According to Pulli, other applications include things like visual search, whereby the user points the device at something and it gives them information relating to the object. “There's also the concept of navigation. A lot of people aren't good with maps, so you could have a dotted line on the sidewalk or arrows saying 'Go this way', as a more natural way of understanding direction.”

Location, location, context

Prentice explains that instead of having to type searches into a device as you move around, it will increasingly be able to discern from the context what you might be looking for, based on your surroundings and personal preferences.

“It's really about the contextual push of information,” says Prentice. “Context replaces search in mobile; there's an incredible richness in knowing where something is, rather than just its existence.”

He adds that because a phone is something people always carry with them, it can become the source for merging the real and digital worlds, to provide data that is valuable.

This is a trend seen in technology in general, says Prentice, where the device becomes irrelevant as long as it performs the desired function. “It's not like it was back in the '80s when you had major shifts in computing development; none of the these technologies are really new, it's about taking several known technologies and bringing them together to unlock many new applications.”

Pulli says his long-term vision for AR is to create user interfaces that seamlessly combine the real world with digital information about that world, to connect the user dynamically to their environment.

IBM, for example, piloted the Seer app at Wimbledon last year, allowing visitors to see scores, schedules, player statistics, and match insights. They also received live Twitter updates from scouts roaming the grounds and tweeting on things like the shortest queues and best eating spots. The updated version allows users to point their iPhone or Android device at courts and 'see through the wall', as live play from inside the court appears on the phone.

Beyond tech

Prentice argues that AR technology will move into the mainstream once it allows people to do something they wouldn't normally be able to. He quotes Intel research fellow, Genevieve Bell, who says: “Technology succeeds when it meets a need that people care about.”

“It's about making technology - not just the device but the data bases and information made available through technology - much more accessible than before,” says Prentice.

“It comes down to ease of use. People don't want to use technology, they want what it enables. We don't want a mobile phone, we want a conversation; we don't want AR apps, we want the information it provides.”

He notes that with the prevalence of social networks, and the increasing value people place on peer-to peer sharing, users are interested in what other people similar to them think about a place or product.

Prentice anticipates growth in AR apps that overlay output from preferred sources of social life and combine this with other information feeds onto the immediate context. “So you could go to a store and point your device at a barcode and it could tell you ratings from various consumer magazines, recommendations from people you know, and also that the store a block away sells the same product for cheaper.”

While these kinds of services may seem a long way off, the 2010 Horizon Report, which predicts adoption time frames for various technologies, says augmented reality is set to enter the mainstream consumer sector within two to three years.

“It's probably a lot closer than we think,” says Prentice, who believes the first round of these applications will appear in the next two to five years.

“The hardware in high-end mobile phones is powerful enough, the software is generally good enough, and bandwidth is becoming available. All that's lacking now is the imagination to bring out apps that people find relevant.

“This technology is about providing people with things they don't even know they want yet, and addressing needs they don't even know they have yet.“

For users, says Pulli, the focus is on easy access to information and better interfaces. He adds that far in the future, one could see the emergence of ubiquitous computing, where the environment itself is instrumented.

“This could work in the home or office, where you have cameras and projectors that track and recognise your movements, so any surface could work as a display when needed. You wouldn't have to carry a device around because the whole environment is instrumented.”

Eventually, this could be extended to applications like enhanced geocaching, or treasure hunts outdoors with virtual clues you don't see with the unaided eye but with an AR device, says Pulli.

“We haven't reached that yet but there's a lot of work being done and a lot of potential. All we need is to make that system easier to interface.”

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