Augmented reality: Fantasy meets real life

Augmented reality: Fantasy meets real life

Augmented reality on the Apple iPhone.

Don’t act too surprised if, some time in the next year, you meet someone who explains that their business card isn’t just a card; it’s an augmented reality business card. You can see a collection and, at visualcard.me, you can even design your own, by adding a special marker to your card, which, once put in front of a webcam linked to the internet, will show not only your contact details but also a video or sound clip. Or pretty much anything you want.

It’s not just business cards. London Fashion Week has tried them out too: little symbols that look like barcodes printed onto shirts, which, when viewed through a webcam, come to life. Benetton is using augmented reality for a campaign that kicked off last month, in which it is trying to find models from among the general population.

Augmented reality – AR, as it has quickly become known – has only recently become a phrase that trips easily off technologists’ lips; yet we’ve been seeing versions of it for quite some time. The idea is straightforward enough: take a real-life scene, or (better) a video of a scene, and add some sort of explanatory data to it so that you can better understand what’s going on, or who the people in the scene are, or how to get to where you want to go.

Sports coverage on TV has been doing it for years: slow-motion could be described as a form of AR, since it gives you the chance to examine what happened in a situation more carefully. More recently cricket, tennis, rugby, football and golf have all started to overlay analytic information on top of standard-speed replays – would that ball have hit the stumps, the progress of a rally, the movement of the backs or wingers– to tell you more about what’s going on.

But those required huge systems. AR took its first lumbering steps into the public arena eight years ago: all that you needed to do was strap on 10 kg of computing power – laptop, camera, vision processor – and you could get an idea of what was feasible. The “American Popular Science” magazine wrote about the idea in 2002 – but the idea of being permanently connected to the internet hadn’t quite jelled at that point.

“AR has been around for ages,” says Andy Cameron, executive director of Fabrica, an interactive design studio which works with Benetton, “maybe going back as far as the 1970s.”

What’s changed in the past year is that AR has come within reach of all sorts of developers – and the technology powerful enough to make use of it is owned by millions of people, often in the palms of their hands.

The arrival of powerful smartphones and computers with built-in video capabilities means that you don’t have to wait for the AR effects as you do with TV. They can simply be overlaid onto real life. Step forward Apple’s iPhone, and phones using Google’s Android operating system, both of which are capable of overlaying information on top of a picture or video.

Within the small world of AR, one of the best-known apps is that built by Layar, which – given a location, and using the iPhone 3GS’s inbuilt compass to work out the direction you’re pointing the phone – can give you a “radar map” of details such as Wikipedia information, Flickr photos, Google searches and YouTube videos superimposed onto a picture you’ve taken of the scene.

The next level

Or maybe it wouldn’t need to know where it is; only who it’s looking at. A prototype application demonstrated at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February took things a little further again. Point the phone at a person and if it can find their details, it will pull them off the web and attach details – their Twitter username, Facebook page and other facts – and stick them, rather weirdly, into the air around their head (viewed through your phone, of course). “It’s taking social networking to the next level,” says Dan Gärdenfors, head of user experience research at The Astonishing Tribe, a Swedish mobile software company.

Yet it’s fashion which seems to have leapt quickest into this technology. The T-shirt with AR in London Fashion Week was developed by Cassette Playa. Adidas, too, has launched trainers with AR symbols: hold them to a webcam and you are taken to interactive games on the Adidas web site.

The process by which the strange symbols get translated into images is simple enough: the web site takes the feed from your webcam and analyses it for the particular set of symbols that the program is looking for. Videos and pictures are then sent back to you.
Andy Cameron says that the arrival of an AR tool kit has let companies build their own AR applications, using Flash “which immediately means you have huge penetration, because Flash is everywhere”. Cameron can also see huge potential which could even revive the fortunes of print advertising.

And of course where advertisers go, the publications are sure to go as well. “Esquire” magazine in the US and “Wallpaper” in Europe have done “augmented reality” editions, with Robert Downey Jr coming to life on the cover of the former, and AR text providing videos and animation in the latter.

But there are more possibilities for journalism using AR: for example if you “geotag” newspaper articles then someone visiting a site could learn about events relevant to the area via their smartphone.

Book publishers too are leaping in: Carlton Publishing will release an AR book in May, featuring dinosaurs that pop out of the pages when viewed, yes, through a webcam. Future releases include war, sport and arts titles which will also have extra AR elements.
Is there a risk that we’ll all become AR’d out – that it will become boring? “What’s hot today is ancient history tomorrow,” says Cameron.

Yet there are some who think that AR has already had its brief time in the sun. At the Like Minds conference in Exeter at the beginning of March, Joanne Jacobs, a social media consultant, described an AR application that demanded you buy a T-shirt and then go and sit in front of your webcam – so you could play Rock, Paper, Scissors. By yourself.
“It’s hopeless,” Jacobs said.

The Observer

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