At the time this was firmly science fiction. Now, the beginnings of that capability are being introduced on mobile phones. The current leading example is Layar (see also here), which provides the capability to overlay data sets realtime onto the phone's screen based on what is seen by its camera. This has been termed 'Augmented Reality' because it brings features of our now well-known virtual realities back into the physical one. A good overview article from the Economist is already familiar to those who subscribe to my Google Reader shared items.
So what's it good for? Here's a short list of ways AR might change a few things:
- See it, Shop it: Like those shoes the lady in front of you is wearing? Not only might your phone tell you what they are, it can tell you where the best price or nearest location is to buy them, and it can draw an AR pheremone trail only you can see to show you how to get there.
- AR Gaming. This is a broad one, so heres a few examples: Take a look at this blend of tabletop wargame, video game, and virtual world:
Now imagine taking that to the streets of your city, in multiplayer, with teams, AR destruction drawn on buildings, the works. At that point it becomes Alternate Reality.
- Likewise imagine the ways that virtual communities or games can spill over into AR, and vice versa. World of Warcraft players with a particular layar on could look into their phones and see other WoW players replaced in the video with their game avatars, who move like the person, and functions of the game that once happened only in-game in-basement could now happen on the streets, at gaming conventions, or in your local Starbucks.
- For an excellent example of how AR might make life difficult for celebrities who value privacy and easy for stalkers who don't, refer to the recent video of a Dutch camera crew using Layar to find Brad Pitt's home in Amsterdam. On the other hand, there will emerge AR celebrities in the same way that when webcams first became affordable there were webcam celebrities. Which leads us to:
- Of course, this being the internet, there will be porn. It may be as simple as applications that take in video of girls walking on the street and output a virtually generated declothed version (which is sure to spark an interesting privacy debate), or it may allow for imaginary 'companions' only you can see through your own phone, like Baltar and Number Six on Battlestar Galactica. Who knows? But be sure of it, the adult entertainment industry will stay on the leading edge (because there's money to be made).
- Then theres the many commercial applications: How much is that house appraised for? Where's the nearest restaurant or movie theatre? This is old-hat, location-aware stuff that the iPhone is already doing, but it will be viewed through the lens of the mobile device itself.
- Virtual geocaching.
- Mix with facial recognition software and web-photo tag-mining and figuring out how to approach that cute girl at the end of the bar (or, swindle her out of her money) becomes easier.
Doubtless, there are loads of other ways in which AR might or might not be a game-changer. What do you imagine?
* Bruce Sterling's AR blog posts at Wired
*AR Sci-fi reading list