Thursday, September 24, 2009

On Augmented Reality

In 1994 I discovered cyberpunk. I first read Neuromancer, then everything else I could get my hands on by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and their contemporaries. Virtual Light was but a shadow of the book that Neuromancer was, but my teenage mind still soaked it up. What I remember most about the book is the technologically advanced sunglasses that the plot revolves around. Among other things, they have the property that when you look through them, information is displayed about the things you're looking at. Whose car is that? What brand of shoes are those? Who is that man?

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:
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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:

  5. 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).

  6. 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.

  7. Virtual geocaching.

  8. 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?

Extra Sources:
* Bruce Sterling's AR blog posts at Wired
*AR Sci-fi reading list


hemisphire said...

Oh no, it's already here!

Unknown said...

I'll reiterate what I said before:

1) I think a lot of the buzz around AR right now is concentrated around some of the more gimmicky uses of it, and will be little more than a fad. (Geolocating tweets or restaurant reviews and the like). I have been wrong before of course.

2) You mentioned gaming, and I think there is a lot of potential there.

3) There are some niches where AR is very useful, like when the user's attention or hands are busy doing something else. This is why heads-up displays are used by airplane mechanics and fighter pilots. I'm sure this will expand to things like navigation systems in cars.

3) My test for gimmick vs. legitimate use of AR is comparing it to a simple map view. I ask myself, is there any added benefit to putting this on an AR layer, or is the user equally (or even better) served by placing the information on a traditional map. I have trouble thinking of what the AR advantage is in alot of cases, other than the "that's new" factor.

Unknown said...

I don't mean to sound quite so down on AR. I think it's an important step towards getting to the world you described from the sci-fi novels, where all the world's information is at your fingertips, and is being displayed real-time as you look around. I imagine it like the opening sequence of Terminator 2, when we see Arnold's cyborg view.

However, I think the real innovations that will bring us there are in data access/organization and machine vision. I think it is those areas that have kept us from that point, not a lack of being able to overlay data on a video feed.

That being said, I think it will make for some cool games. I can already see a beer goggles app that makes everyone around you slightly more attractive.

Dave Y said...

Whoah, nice example Kerry. Now if it let you play the game using those maps but in realspace, and with the other players visible, that would be something.

1/3b) you're right. this is where separating the 'location-aware' apps and the 'computer vision' apps will happen.
3a) and monocles! could we please have monocles!