The roots of “AR”, or augmented reality, has its roots in the golden days of virtual reality gaming in the early 1990s. Since those days the technology has progressed and can now be found in use in everything from entertainment to education, with no shortage of applications in the advertising and commercial spheres, not to mention the military applications that are in development. With the introduction of smart phones that rival the power of desktop computers, Google Glass™ and many other small yet powerful portable systems, AR is finding its way into many more aspects of life than I had imagined when I first previewed some of the early tech back in 2001. However, what has come to be is nothing compared to what is to come. In this article we are going to take a brief look at where AR has been and just how this new reality may impact our lives in the future. So strap on your goggles, fire up your computer and let’s see what we can find in the new augmented reality.
In the BeginningLong ago, in a design lab, far, far away there was a cube. Well, at least there appeared to be a cube. The six faces of that mysterious object were featureless, blue and had it not been for the enormous headset perched precariously upon my head, not really there at all. It was AMAZING. I do not mean interesting, I mean shake you to your soul amazing. The simple display appeared to maintain its position as I carefully maneuvered my tethered noggin around the cramped quarters, staring in awe at this “solid object” that was created in a computer and digitally composited in my field of vision using a combination of stereo cameras, ancient 600 Mhz computers and some very ingenious programmers. Sure I had seen stuff like this… in science fiction movies. But I had never realized the impact witnessing this technology come to life would have on me. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, the novelty of the invention quickly faded, yet I continued to wonder “how could we use this technology, what applications could this have now or in the future?” My mind was buzzing with potential but much of what I imagined would not, rather could not, be realized for nearly a decade, until the processing power and portability of the requisite computer systems finally allowed the practical use of “Augmented Reality.”
Now, some 14 years later, Augmented Reality is rapidly becoming common place, though not yet ubiquitous, and the single most common usage seems to be gaming. But these are not your dad’s video games. AR games are being used to activate marketing campaigns, disseminate information, and engage users in everything from trade shows to live sporting events. One of my favorites has been Arizona Ice Tea’s Soda Shaq. This awesome little game is a version of AR Basketball that puts you in the game, playing basketball against Shaq himself. It uses an Arizona Ice Tea can, in this case the “Soda Shaq” product line, as the “marker” against which the AR is overlain. I have to admit to several hours lost in trying to sink shots while being taunted and lambasted by the virtual Shaq character. As a side note the music for this cool little program is a Shaq original composition. You can check out this app here: Drink Soda Shaq. AR Soccer, AR Field Goal kicking, and another one of my favorites, ARDefender all leverage the use of augmented reality for the purpose of wistfully whiling away the hours. After all, what could be more fun than blasting mini-helicopters that are threatening you from behind your coffee cup or sinking a three-pointer while Shaq slams you for the “brick” you just threw?
One of the facets of AR gaming that I find most intriguing is the ability to overlay the game environment onto the “real world.” I used the quotes there to emphasize that the lines between AR and “Real” are rapidly blurring and will continue to do so! Recently, I attended a demonstration of a murder mystery game. For the demo, the developers had rented an old home in Winston-Salem, NC. The house was a large 3 story affair, adorned with all the trappings of an early 20th century upper class home. Using a pad or phone, participants were able to move through the house looking for “clues” that were all AR overlays. What I thought was intriguing was the ability to actually interact with the clues you found. In the end, I was beaten to the punch of solving the mystery, but it was an incredibly entertaining experience. The players interacted with each other, the “real” environment and the virtual clues, all of which contributed to a unique experience that was fun and informative. (as an aside, I find it interesting that such a virtual or augmented reality was able to bring together an number of people and engage them in a social setting instead of hindering social interactions.)
Way back in 1994, I read a book by William Gibson entitled “Virtual Light”. The protagonist of the story steals a pair of glasses containing the plans to rebuild San Francisco entirely using nanotechnology. The wearer of the glasses would see specific plans in great detail which were overlain on the existing structures. Now 20 years later, one of the more common use of AR is the superimposition of data points on the natural environment. The uses are, as you might imagine, practically limitless. Just imagine the “in the helmet” view of Tony Stark in the Iron Man suit or a HUD on a jet fighter. Now combine that concept with navigation software and you wind up with this interesting app from TapNav. Granted, it is a little clunky, but it does pay attention to the road ahead!
Then there are uses such as that employed by the company ABB. The problem ABB faced was that almost all of their products are simply too large to put on display at a tradeshow. They build and commission complete turnkey power supply and network management solutions for railways. So, as you might imagine, their products are BIG. By using an Augmented Reality system, ABB is able to demonstrate to its customers the very latest technology in ways that are simply not possible using any other technology. They are able to use the interactive 3D images to show how the products are built, demonstrate individual features and it is a very positive aid for sales reps. In initial reports, the eye catching display increased the “on stand dwell time” of potential clients by 15 minutes and, according to the company’s own website, generated a larger pool of qualified leads.
Where Are We Going?
The simple and admittedly pedantic answer is “anywhere we want!” To give you just a hint of what AR might have in store, there is even an idea that may make combat “safer” for our soldiers… WHAT?!?! Safer combat. Well, as safe as a life and death situation can ever be… But imagine a scenario in which a soldier is holed up behind a small fortification, IE a stone wall, and even peeking around the corner would present a danger. Well… AR to the rescue. Now that soldier simply points his or her weapon around the corner and a small camera sends an image back to their goggles (think Google Glass). Targeting information is the overlain on the image and the soldier can take a potentially lifesaving shot without being exposed. There is even an application in development that would allow the soldier to “mark” several targets and then automatically fire his weapon when the aim returns to that mark.
With information available almost instantly, augmenting the world as we know it is going to happen. Whether you are a gamer, shopper, vendor or warrior there will be many practical applications of AR for you to use. Personally I cannot wait for StarCraft AR, so I can blast Zerg as they crawl out from under the couch in my living room then go on a Murder Mystery date and read a menu, complete with 3D images of the food I am ordering…