As you shove your way through the crowd in a baseball stadium, the
lenses of your digital glasses display the names, hometowns and
favorite hobbies of the strangers surrounding you. Then you claim a
seat and fix your attention on the batter, and his player statistics
pop up in a transparent box in the corner of your field of vision.
It’s not possible today, but the emergence of more powerful,
media-centric cellphones is accelerating humanity toward this vision of
“augmented reality,” where data from the network overlays your view of
the real world. Already, developers are creating augmented reality
applications and games for a variety of smartphones, so your phone’s
screen shows the real world overlaid with additional information such
as the location of subway entrances, the price of houses, or Twitter
messages that have been posted nearby. And publishers, moviemakers and
toymakers have embraced a version of the technology to enhance their
products and advertising campaigns.
“Augmented reality is the ultimate interface to a computer because
our lives are becoming more mobile,” said Tobias Höllerer, an associate
professor of computer science at UC Santa Barbara, who is leading the
university’s augmented reality program. “We’re getting more and more
away from a desktop, but the information the computer possesses is
applicable in the physical world.”
Tom Caudell, a researcher at aircraft manufacturer Boeing, coined
the term “augmented reality” in 1990. He applied the term to a
head-mounted digital display that guided workers through assembling
electrical wires in aircrafts. The early definition of augmented
reality, then, was an intersection between virtual and physical
reality, where digital visuals are blended in to the real world to
enhance our perceptions.
Here’s a quick look at how their augmented reality technology works.
Take the baseball cards. Users have to first log on to a URL
(www.toppstown.com) and enter a 3-D section where they enter an
interactive code found on their baseball card to activate the software.
Then, they can hold the card under a webcam and Total Immersion’s
software goes to work. continue reading…
Futurists and computer scientists continue to raise their standards
for a perfectly augmented world. Höllerer’s dream for augmented reality
is for it to reach a state in which it does not rely on a
pre-downloaded model to generate information. That is, he wants to be
able to point a phone at a city it’s completely unfamiliar with,
download the surroundings and output information on the fly. He and his
peers at UCSB call this idea “Anywhere Augmentation.”
But we have a long way to go — perhaps several years — before
achieving Anywhere Augmentation, Höllerer said. Augmented reality is
stifled by limitations in software and hardware, he explained.
Cellphones require superb battery life, computational power, cameras
and tracking sensors. For software, augmented reality requires a much
more sophisticated artificial intelligence and 3-D modeling
applications. And above all, this technology must become affordable to
consumers. The best possible technology that is available today would
nearly cost $100,000 for a solid augmented-reality device, Höllerer
Given the cost of creating decent augmented-reality technology,
early attempts have focused on two areas. One, augmented reality for
your computer is prominently appearing in attention-grabbing,
big-budget advertisements. And a few consumer applications of the
technology are just beginning to surface in smartphones.
A recent example of augmented reality appeared in the marketing campaign for the sci-fi blockbuster District 9.
On the movie’s official website was a “training simulator” game, which
asked computer users to print a postcard containing the District 9
logo and hold it in front of a webcam. The postcard contains a marker;
when the game detects that marker in the webcam video, it overlays a
3-D hologram of a District 9 character on the computer
screen. From there, players can click buttons to fire a gun, jump up
and down or throw a human against a wall in the game. (See video above.)
Mattel is using the same type of 3-D imaging augmented reality in “i-Tag” action figures for James Cameron’s new movie Avatar.
The toy includes a card containing a marker, which is projected as a
3-D action figure on a computer. This way, children can battle each
other’s virtual characters on a computer screen.
But augmented reality isn’t truly useful in a static desktop
environment, Höllerer said, because people’s day-to-day realities
involve more than sitting around all day (outside of work, at least).
And that’s why smartphones, which include GPS hardware and cameras, are
crucial to driving the evolution of augmented reality.
Brian Selzer, co-founder of Ogmento, a company that creates
augmented reality products for games and marketing, recognizes the need
for augmented reality to go mobile. He said his company is working on
several projects coming in the near future to help market mainstream
movies with augmented reality smartphone apps. For example, movie
posters will trigger interactive experiences on an iPhone, such as a
trailer or even a virtual treasure hunt to promote the film.
“The smartphone is bringing AR into the masses right now,” Selzer
said. “In 2010 every blockbuster movie is going to have a mobile AR
campaign tied to it.”
On the consumer end of the spectrum, developers have recently released
augmented reality apps for the Google Android-powered HTC G1 handset.
Layar, a company based in Amsterdam, released an augmented reality
browser for Android smartphones in June. The Layar browser (video
above) looks at an environment through the phone’s camera, and the app
displays houses for sale, popular restaurants and shops, and tourist
attractions. The software relies on downloading “layers” of data
provided by developers coding for the platform. Thus, while the
information appears to display in real time, it’s not truly real-time:
The app can’t analyze data it hasn’t downloaded ahead of time.
“This is the first time media, internet and digital information is
being combined with reality,” said Martin Lens-FitzGerald, co-founder
of Layar. “You know more, you find more, or you see something you
haven’t seen before. Some people are even saying that it might be even
bigger than the web.”
Cellphone giant Nokia is currently testing an AR app called Point
& Find, which involves pointing your camera phone at real-world
objects and planting virtual information tags on them (above). Users of
the app can view each other’s tags on the phone screen, essentially
crowdsourcing an augmented reality.
“This year we’re feeling a real urgency to work on augmented reality
because the hardware is finally catching up to our needs,” said Rebecca
Allen, director of Nokia’s research center in Hollywood.
Georgia Tech’s Augmented Environments Lab has been researching
augmented reality for a decade and recently shifted its focus onto
handhelds. The video demo above, which the lab created in collaboration
with the Savannah College of Art and Design, demonstrates an
augmented-reality zombie shooter called ARhrrrr. The
smartphone in use is a prototype containing an Nvidia Tegra, a powerful
chip specializing in high-end graphics for mobile devices. How do you
play? Point the phone camera at a map containing markers, and a 3D
hologram of a town overrun by zombies appears on the phone’s screen.
Using the phone, you can shoot the zombies from the perspective of a
helicopter pilot. And you can even place (real) Skittles on the
physical map and shoot them to set off (virtual) bombs.
As for the iPhone, officially there are no augmented reality apps in
the App Store yet — because Apple doesn’t provide an open API to access
live video from the phone’s camera. This barrier prompted augmented
reality enthusiasts and professionals to write an Open Letter to Apple pleading for access to this API to make augmented reality apps possible in the App Store.
Brad Foxhoven, Selzer’s partner at Ogmento, said Apple has told him
the next version of the iPhone OS (3.1) “would make [AR developers]
happy,” implying the live-video API will become open, and AR apps will
become available very soon.
Meanwhile, some augmented reality developers have already hacked away
at the iPhone’s software development kit to code proof-of-concept
augmented reality apps. The video above demonstrates an app called
Twittaround, an augmented reality Twitter viewer on the iPhone. The app
shows live tweets of mobile Twitter users around your location.
“We’re doing as much as we can with the current technology,” Selzer
said regarding the overall augmented-reality developer community. “This
industry is just getting started, and as processing speeds speed up,
and as more creative individuals get involved, our belief is this is
going to become a platform that becomes massively adopted and immersed
in the next few years.”