Duff: Augmented Reality may be next big thing, but it’s still science fiction
Friday, November 13, 2009
Story last updated at 11/13/2009
Today’s buzzword is Augmented Reality.
The technical definition is, “a display in which simulated imagery, graphics, or symbology is superimposed on a view of the surrounding environment.”
In plain English, Augmented Reality allows you to view things in the real world with computer graphics and text added to it.
There are already a variety of AR applications in development. iPhone application developers are working on apps that can help you find friends, taxis, bathrooms, restaurants and dating prospects by overlaying information over the view captured by the phone’s camera.
This is kind of a clumsy way to do AR, but it’s the best we can do until we make the leap to goggles or contacts. Most of the functions served by these apps can be done now with top-down tools like Google
Most Twitter apps have a “nearby” function allowing you to see tweets from people in your immediate area. Google Maps can help you find clubs and restaurants, while applications like Loopt and Foursquare allow users to “check in” and share their current location with friends.
True Augmented Reality is still science fiction, but there are some excellent novels on the topic that can give you a preview of what the next decade might look like.
My favorite is “Rainbow’s End” by Vernor Vinge. Vinge describes a vibrant, realistic world completely dominated by AR. The characters wear contact lenses adding text and graphics to everything they see. Entire virtual environments can be drawn over real space.
This isn’t cyberspace or some kind of Matrix. This is the real world, overlayed with images, sound, data and landscapes that don’t actually exist.
In a full Augmented Reality environment, two people could stand in the same room and see something completely different. In “Rainbow’s End” a character experiments with different ways to view traffic moving down a highway. He tries out a Tolkien view that turns the carts into carts and horses, a Terry Pratchett view that turns the cars into flying dinosaurs and a kind of historical museum view that makes the cars, buildings, landscape and people look like they’re driving in the 1960s.
The simplest AR view may just be the real world with text labels identifying people, places and services who want to broadcast their locations. The slickest AR applications will probably be advertisements, splashing billboards and neon arrows over your view of the real world.
Hopefully, AR designers will give us a way to turn these off.
All this speculation about Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality got me thinking about current reality and how many layers of interference we already have between us and the real world.
I was sitting on a bench on the Texas Tech campus Wednesday, watching the students go by. I had my headphones on, listening to an audiobook. Seven out of 10 students had white earbuds in their ears.
A couple small groups were talking, but most people were just breezing by on their way to somewhere else. All of us were in that courtyard together, but we weren’t really sharing the same reality.
My body was sitting on a bench surrounded by staff and students, but I wasn’t interacting with those people. I wasn’t even making eye contact. Mentally I was in a world created by Iain M. Banks, delivered through my headphones. My eyes were scanning for a bus, but my ears and my mind were far away.
We put more emphasis on visual stimuli, but I think we took our first steps toward Virtual Reality in 1979, with the invention of the Sony Walkman. Headphones were easier to create and easier to walk around with than goggles, so we started with audio first.
Most of the people I saw in that courtyard don’t define their reality in terms of physical space anymore. Their reality is defined by the list of contacts in their mobile phones. No chance to get bored and start up a conversation on the bus. Easier to just whip out your phone and call someone you already know.
With the addition of text messaging, portable phones and personal GPS, we’ve now got so many layers between us and the world, Augmented Reality might actually bring us back to Earth.
Imagine sitting in a coffee shop watching public text messages appear above people like thought balloons. Could Augmented Reality text messaging rekindle our interest in simple talking?
Could public texting create a new kind of public speaking and help shy people break out of their virtual shells?
Vernor Vinge paints a realistic picture of our world in 2025, but I’m afraid our current world was predicted by Simon and Garfunkel when they sang “The Sound of Silence” in 1965.
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