The New Reality is Augmented

One concept that’s been rising in popularity over the past decade is augmented reality (AR).  It’s the idea of a computer overlay on top of what you see, placed in space over real objects.  This is a private view that only you can see.

There are various methods of doing this, right now the most popular way is looking through your smartphone – the phone’s video camera captures a live feed, and shows it on-screen with AR data added, for example, Yelp will show the names and reviews of nearby restaurants as you look through your phone and move it around.

Another less-popular AR display method is goggles.  These are used by the military and hardcore nerds, but not by the public at large, mainly because they are goofy-looking.

A couple methods at the edge of reality but still for the most part only science-fiction or concept products not in production are normal-looking glasses with AR, or better yet, near-invisible contact lenses with AR.  They might be stand-alone, but more likely they would communicate wirelessly with a smartphone-type device in your pocket.

These would allow computer data to be overlaid on whatever you look at, without other people being able to tell what you are seeing.  The possibilities are endless, and range from indispensable to annoying to terrifying.

Two good science-fiction works I read recently that discuss these possibilities are Vision Machine and Rainbow’s End.  Vision Machine is more focused on the gadget itself and how copyright laws would apply to it, and Rainbow’s End is more about what the overall world would be like with such a device in it.

It feels like AR is coming, right now you can see the first faltering steps, with iPhone apps, GPSs Kinect games, PS3 virtual pets… I feel like it’s bubbling, beginning to churn and swirl, and soon it will explode into something major.

What sorts of content to expect?  Well, could be anything, but here are some obvious ones:

  • Maps (GPS-type directions, or museum-guide style floorplans)
  • Instructions (either usage instructions on a product, or Ikea-style assembly instructions)
  • Contacts (names and relevant data hovering above people you see)
  • Ads (which could ruin everything if we’re not careful)
  • Complete virtual overlays (CGI “suits” that completely change the look of people or things… like everyone you see having the heads of cats)
  • PDA functions (to-do lists, clock, calendar)
  • Camera functions (stills, video, editing, special effects)
  • Phone functions (IM/texts, calls, email)
  • Purchasing Info (prices with tax, calorie counts on food, price comparisons)

It’s a brave new augmented reality world, keep an eye out for it!