Monday, August 30, 2010

Augmented Reality Will Change How We See The World

Augmented reality is the technology of superimposing virtual images over top of one’s view of the real world. One of the earliest examples is the yellow first down line in televised American football games, which has existed since 1998. The technology typically works by recognizing a certain object in the real world, which triggers a computer to impose a virtual image into the viewer’s line of vision. In the case of the first down line, it operates through a television screen, but any type of screen will do. Augmented reality applications already exist for computers, smartphones, special-design glasses, and airplane windshields.

General Electric has a very cool interactive demonstration of augmented reality with which you can experiment on your computer. In this demonstration, an ordinary computer webcam scans the room. GE’s program detects a certain symbol (on a printed piece of paper), and displays a virtual image over top of it. You can hold the paper from almost any angle. If you move the paper or change the angle, the virtual image will follow your movements so that it constantly appears that the virtual image is on top of the symbol.

But although this is certainly a cool trick, does augmented reality have any useful applications beyond keeping us mildly amused? Any good augmented reality application has at least two components: 1) Recognizing a real-world object to "trigger" the application to do something, and 2) Superimposing a virtual image into the user's line of sight. Imagine you are walking the streets of an unfamiliar city looking for a place to eat lunch. As you walk by restaurants with your augmented reality glasses on, you see the restaurants’ average Yelp rating (and the most recent reviews) hovering just above the buildings. Based on this data, you select the restaurant you want to eat at. This would certainly be more convenient than looking up each restaurant individually as you walked by.

Augmented reality software could be installed in the windshields of automobiles (as it already is in airplanes) to dramatically improve safety, according to General Motors. The technology could scan the car's surroundings for possible hazards. Any object deemed dangerous, such as a deer on the side of the road, could flash on the windshield to draw the driver’s attention to it. In conditions of poor visibility, an augmented reality windshield could help point out the edges of the road, the lines on the road, and any important road signs.

BMW has another example for how augmented reality might work in automobiles in the near future. Suppose that you wanted to repair something in your car, but knew very little about how to go about it. Rather than take it to a mechanic, you could put on your augmented reality glasses, and get step-by-step instructions for how to repair it yourself. The software in your glasses would recognize the parts of your car as you looked at them, and create a detailed illustration showing you exactly what you needed to do in real-time.

The tutorial applications of augmented reality are endless. In addition to repairing a car, augmented reality could help teach people how to perform a wide variety of tasks, from processes as simple as cooking to those as complex as open-heart surgery. Eventually, even augmented reality glasses will become obsolete, as computing power becomes cheap enough to fit inside regular eyeglasses or contact lenses to project virtual images directly onto the user’s eye.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil envisions a future in which contact lenses come with several different viewing modes, depending on what the user wants to see at any given moment. There would be a “normal mode,” which simply displays the real world as we currently observe it. There would be an “augmented mode,” in which the user’s augmented reality applications superimpose virtual images over top of the user’s regular view of the world. Finally, there would be a “blocking mode,” in which the real world was not displayed at all, allowing the user to become fully visually immersed in a website, book, movie, or computer game.

Some of the earliest applications of augmented reality are already being rolled out on the iPhone and Android. This technology seems poised to explode into mainstream use over the next 10-15 years, and will quite literally change how we see the world.


By 2013 – Useful augmented reality applications exist on PCs and/or tablets to allow shoppers to virtually try on clothing before purchasing it online.

By 2017 – At least one-third of all smartphone and/or tablet users have an augmented reality application to project virtual images over the real world, as seen through their screen.

By 2021 – Augmented reality is routinely used to train people how to perform process-based tasks such as cooking, dentistry, surgery, furniture assembly, factory work, and/or auto repair.

By 2023 – At least half of all new, non-driverless automobiles in the US have augmented reality technology in the windshield for safety and/or navigational purposes.

By 2028 – Augmented reality contact lenses exist which can place virtual overlays of the world directly onto the wearer’s eye, or block out the real world altogether if the wearer desires.

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