iPhone apps like AR Drone adding data to cellphone images are taking flight

[From The Wall Street Journal; more information about the AR Drones, including videos, is available here]

[Image: Electronics-show attendees watched a demonstration of Parrot’s helicopter in January.]

JULY 13, 2010

Reality Gets a Makeover

With Jumps in Processing Power, Apps Adding Data to Cellphone Images are Taking Flight


PARIS—French electronics company Parrot SA plans next month to release a toy helicopter with a twist.

The AR Drone has a pair of cameras to relay video to iPhones or iPads, which function as the remote control. The device also recognizes certain objects, such as other AR Drones, and can add graphics to the video feed, creating a videogame played out in the real world.

The $299 toy is the latest example of an effort to commercialize augmented reality, a technique in which extra information or graphics are added to ordinary surroundings. From virtual mirrors that superimpose a shade of lipstick on a potential buyer’s face, to restaurant reviews that pop up when a person points a camera phone at a restaurant, proponents say the technology has a range of possible uses beyond videogames that mix the real and virtual worlds.

But building a product based on augmented reality requires video cameras, fast microprocessors and sensors that can relay location. Until recently, these needs have made AR too bulky, expensive and slow to be commercially practical.

“Because most of the compelling uses of augmented reality are mobile, you need small devices,” says Blair MacIntyre, director of the Augmented Environments Lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The past few years have seen jumps in the power of sensors. And the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 and competing smartphones means that millions of people have sufficient processing power for augmented-reality applications in their pockets.

Paris-based Presselite uses augmented reality in about 10 of its 60 iPhone apps, says co-founder Antoine Morcos. The uses range from a mapping app that gives the user a visual arrow on the phone screen pointing toward the nearest Paris Métro station, to an app that shows Twitter feeds of friends in the vicinity.

Last year the software company released a 99-cent game for the iPhone, called Firefighter 360. When the user holds up a phone to the surroundings, the user can see the office, living room or the street corner burst into flames on the phone screen. The user, as a firefighter, needs then to extinguish the fire with an on-screen virtual hose.

San Diego’s Qualcomm Inc. wants to take augmented reality beyond users of Apple products. This fall it will provide a development kit for smartphones using Google Inc.’s Android operating system, aiming to make developing augmented-reality apps and games as easy as developing standard cellphone apps. Qualcomm also is introducing an international developer contest, with a total of $200,000 in prize money for the top three entries.

One of the obstacles preventing augmented reality from being more mainstream is that the code required to visually enhance video isn’t widely available, says Jay Wright, director of business development for Qualcomm. The development kit is meant to solve that problem. “We’re taking what’s really hard [about creating augmented reality] and we’ll make it available to developers for free,” he says.

Researchers also have found a problem in the clash between the real and virtual worlds. In the real world, toy helicopters can crash into trees. And in the on-screen virtual world, people tend to get lost in their game.

“You are so focused on some things that you completely miss other important things,” says Mr. MacIntyre, of Georgia Tech. “There are worries about people stepping off curbs or falling down stairs.”

Parrot didn’t start off as a videogame maker; it made electronics such as hands-free car kits, digital photo frames and wireless speakers. Like some of those products, the AR Drone uses a Wi-Fi connection.

Parrot Chief Executive Henri Seydoux says the actual number of AR Drones sold is less important than getting people interested in the possibilities of augmented reality. The AR Drone, which the company demonstrated at January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, will be released in the U.S. on Sept. 6.

Parrot has been developing the AR Drone since 2006 with a team of 12 people, Mr. Seydoux says. He declines to say how much the company it has spent developing the toy. Parrot employs 450 people and reported sales of €165 million ($208 million) last year.

While Parrot has no previous experience in videogames, Mr. Seydoux says the technology needed is used in the more traditional wireless devices the company sells. “This is the beauty of high tech,” he said. “With the technologies from your core business, you can make totally new things.”

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