Can’t stop hearing about it in the news, but wondering what makes “augmented reality” (AR) – the concept of overlaying computerized information, digital pop-up windows and/or virtual reality (VR) displays over real-world scenes and imagery – so exciting? Allow us to paint a picture. Imagine. You walk up to an airport terminal and breeze past the airline check-in. Afterwards, a wireless chip in your smartphone uses biometrics to verify your identity at a checkpoint, then a green arrow pops up and shows you the best path to the gate. When you get there, a blue circle shows you where to sit and helps you avoid the most common congestion points. You wait about five minutes until a soft chime tells you to get in line. The total time between drop-off and take-off: Just 20 minutes.
In this near-future scenario, just one of many possible applications for the technology, the concept of augmented reality makes air travel more bearable. More than just a series of visual cues, the technology can even combine auditory sensors and other stimuli to make high-tech data part of your everyday life. Like robotics, there’s a visceral and physical representation of the underlying artificial intelligence involved. And with real-world implications that range from expediting everyday business travel to fueling potential military research, facilitating heightened responses in emergency scenarios and powering the world’s most immersive video games, augmented reality will forever change how we think about data and how we process information.
“Augmented reality will ultimately become a part of everyday life,” explains Sam Bergen, an associate art director for digital innovation at the ad agency Ogilvy and Mather. “Kids will use it in school as a learning tool – imagine Google Earth with AR- or AR-enabled text books. Shoppers will use it to see what products will look like in their home. Consumers will use it to visually determine how to set up a computer. Architects and city planners will even use it to see how new construction will look, feel, and affect the area they are developing.”
This year, apps such as Nearest Tube for iPhone (which displays real-time pop-ups alerting users to nearby train stations in London) and Tweetmondo for Android smartphones (which shows the status updates of nearby Twitter fans), offer an early glimpse at how the technology works. Even the unlikeliest candidates such as the US Postal Service, A&E Network, and GE are beginning to show how augmented reality could help us interact with and understand digital content in more interesting ways. Knowing this, it’s not too farfetched to wager that in the not-too-distant future, augmented reality could actually become as integral to our lives as cell phones and Web 2.0 sites in terms of how it enhances reality and integrates with our surroundings.
Of course, there are dangers involved. Relying too much on augmented reality could mean more than just driving into a lake when you follow poor GPS directions. Instead, following the prompts of a software program designed to make your life easier could lead to life-threatening disaster and a new form of hacking and identity theft. Given the tools to make augmented reality part of our lives, there is a potential for sensory overload, and for others to manipulate the everyday real-world feedback we take for granted. Still, in the right conditions, the technology could make our lives less complex and far easier.
Part science fiction, part a reaction to today’s increasingly overwhelming constant barrage of digital content, one thing is for certain, though: Augmented reality is an important step on the road to making technology more understandable and useful.