Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Augmented Reality

Reality, like truth, has many different versions. Anyone who has watched the Matrix movies knows what I mean. Anyone who has ever watched "reality television" should also know how far from reality that is.

But there's an emerging technology term called "augmented reality," or AR. Here's how it works.

Computers have now become adept at taking pictures and video. We've all seen them draw maps and give directions. With GPS technology, computers know where they are. Their connection to the Internet means they have the full power of the knowledge on the Web at their fingertips. So what's needed is to tie this all together.

Augmented reality can do this.

In the examples I've seen of AR, it starts with a picture, typically a live picture. The computer will then use GPS or other location sensing technologies to figure out where it is. By using image recognition, the computer can try to determine what it's seeing, whether this be a building, a sign, a monument, or something else.

Tying all of these aspects together, the computer gets a pretty good idea of where you are and what it's seeing.

Then comes the interesting part: Helping you do something.

Say you are in Manhattan and want to get to Grand Central Terminal. Using a handheld device with AR, you can hold it up and point it at the world around you. It will then be able to tell you how to get to a subway entrance or which bus to take and where to wait for it.

If you're on vacation, AR can help you locate landmarks you'd like to see as well as provide you background information on what you're seeing.

The augmenting of reality comes into play by having the computer overlay text and/or graphics on top of the images the camera is displaying. Sometimes these augmented items just provide visual cues or they might provide additional information if you touch them. As you move the device around, the overlay information scrolls with the image. New information appears as parts of the image appear and old information disappears as the image leaves the screen.

In many ways, AR is similar to a "heads up" display that was originally used for military applications and has appeared on some high-end automobiles. Typical AR applications are being seen as iPhone or other handheld device applications, thereby reducing the cost of adoption from millions of dollars to a few dollars.

To see some examples of augmented reality, follow these links:


AR is, of course, still an emerging technology. There are plenty of challenges with the technology, such as things that move, databases that are inaccurate, image recognition that doesn't work as well as we'd like, and a lack of applications.

However, the fact that it's possible for all of these data sources to be brought together in a way that consumers can easily use bodes well for AR's adoption. The ease with which people can develop applications for handheld devices such as the iPhone will also continue to drive adoption and innovation.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 30 September 2009.
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