The press and the advertising industry alike have been making a big to-do about Augmented Reality (also known as AR). But what is AR? Where did it come from? How is it going to affect marketing, entertainment and our daily lives? Is AR just a passing fad, or a technology that will be around for years to come?
You may not realize it, but you have probably experienced AR for years. On any given Sunday between the months of August and January, millions of football fans have been using augmented reality to better understand if their team should “go for it.” AR has allowed the average armchair quarterback to make the decision minutes before the referees actually got to run out onto the field to take a measurement with the chains to determine a first down. That’s right, that little yellow line that has been accidently severing the torsos of grass-stained linemen since the late 1990s/early 2000s was one of the first mainstream uses for AR, along with “fox-trax” that a few hockey fans will remember from roughly the same time period.
How did sports wind up with these nifty little visual cues? Well, like most consumer technologies, AR originated in the defense sector. Tom Caudell is credited with coining the term while he was working for Boeing in 1992 to aid in the wiring of aircraft. Years later in 1999, a software developer named Hirokazu Kato unveiled ARToolKit at SIGGRAPH (an annual computer graphics conference). ARToolkit made AR more readily available for developers to experiment with and quietly (at least to the general public) set the AR era in motion.
Where is AR going? Since Apple’s unveiling of the iPhone 3G a few years back, some developers have been toying with AR board games. These games utilize the iPhone 3G’s camera and processing capabilities to build 3D worlds from abstract blocks of black and white. Here is an example of such a demo game called Kweekies. These games have never really grown past the development stage, but have guys like me “geeking out” about the possibilities.
The iPhone 3GS on the other hand, which is not just GPS capable but location aware, has taken AR from Dungeons and Dragons to East & Main. Thanks to the iPhone 3GS’s built in magnetometer (basically an internal electronic compass), in conjunction with its GPS receiver/transmitter, the phone not only knows its position on the surface on the Earth, but also the direction it’s pointed. This is where I see the future of AR flourishing. The current iterations of these apps include automated sightseeing, mass transit locators and generic local search apps. Here is an example of a mass transit app from New York City in action. These groundbreaking applications allow users to simply perform a search, hold up their phone, and using the phone’s camera and screen view points of interest in real time with a GUI (graphic user interface) that overlays reality.
The iPhone 3GS’s augmented reality apps are only just beginning to tap the potential strength of AR. Will there be avenues that developers take AR down that will turn out to be passing fads? Of course, as with all groundbreaking technologies, those early adopters are going to inevitably create rushed solutions that are nothing more than eye candy. And eye candy is often overdone, and over used, to the point of parody. That being said, there will also be major breakthroughs mixed in the fray. Sure, the partnership between Coke and Avatar made for some pretty cool looking internet advertising that utilized AR, and who doesn’t love a good Rock, Paper Scissors game that lives on their shirt? But these applications of AR may not be around for the long haul. This doesn’t mean that the technology as a whole will be a passing fad, in fact I believe that this technology will be around for years to come and will totally change the way we all interact with the physical and virtual worlds. What do you think? “AR” you excited yet?