Augmented reality is as broad and powerful a concept as the idea of connectivity, and comes in as many flavors. It is visible through varying devices, available across a wide spectrum of potency, and utilizable in an unlimited variety of applications. I’ve found that the more time I spend thinking about AR, the more I’ve begun to see potential uses for it everywhere.
However, in my experience introducing new people to daqri, I’ve found that the concept of augmented reality for many people is usually either defined poorly, or not at all.
When a newcomer sees our augmented reality campaign for Matchbox 20, she might believe that augmented reality is a marketing tool for bands. Or when a passerby in Miami or New York this summer experienced a live instance of our nationwide campaign for Cadillac, he would reasonably come to the conclusion that AR is a manner of digitally interacting with street art and life-size 3D graphics. Others see our Anatomy 4D app and come to believe in augmented reality as a game-changing tool for education, inside the classroom and beyond.
The truth is that augmented reality is all of these things, and none of them. Thinking that augmented reality is for educational use alone is like thinking that the entire medium of film is comprised exclusively of PBS specials and instructional videos at the DMV. Believing that AR is destined to be used for marketing purposes alone is like believing that the entire internet can only be used for product landing pages.
From a holistic viewpoint, film, the internet, and AR are all much broader and more flexible than a single content category.
Augmented reality is a full-scale medium comprised of a set of technological innovations combined with an expanding set of content conventions. Just as the innovation of video technology enabled the medium of film and television, a breakthrough in computer vision in the last decade has enabled what we now consider to be the fundamentals of AR. In AR, the extent to which we as developers can understand the space around the mobile device visually dictates the parameters within which we can express contextual 4D content and interactivity. Vision science is the technical discipline that deals with and expands this understanding.
What is vision science? Computer vision algorithms can access a camera on an electronic device in order to look for, recognize, and understand a given scope of visual data. This feat can be thought of as loosely analogous to programming a rudimentary human “eye.” The simplest version of this principle at work would be a barcode being recognized by a laser scanner at a grocery store. (This particular example is a useful analogy, even though the technical process of recognizing a barcode doesn’t actually involve vision algorithms.) But since the simplistic barcode can only hold a limited amount of information – it has only a certain number of spaces for 1s and 0s – in the 90s the QR code became the next protagonist in this story. These more visually complex symbols were scanned by millions using free smartphone apps and were popular thanks to their correspondingly greater amounts of data and capabilities. However, being ugly as sin, in the last couple of years QRs have thankfully given way to a much more inviting technology. No longer a Siggraph curiosity, but a full-fledged commercially available technology image recognition allows the device’s camera to see, recognize and understand photographic images, and also happens to be the basis of the majority of our AR campaigns at daqri in 2012.
But this technique too will soon evolve to modalities that will empower even greater flexibility than the flat surface of an image. We are already using SLAM-based math to calculate the geometry of 3-dimensional spaces. Understanding spatial geometry, planes and surfaces will expand the storytelling canvas considerably. And beyond SLAM, object recognition glimmers on the horizon. As this patchwork of visual puzzle pieces continues to coalesce, it won’t be long before our rudimentary programmed “eyes” – in mobile devices and eventually AR-enabled glasses – will be able to see and understand the world at large.
In addition to the integration of vision science and SLAM-based math, the ideal technology recipe for AR will include GPS, which will be used more as a filter than a true locator. For instance, knowing that you are at the Grand Canyon versus in New York City versus at home will help narrow the information you may want to see at any given time. Delivering experiences does depend to a large extent on hardware and connectivity, and despite the many potential concerns out there, I do believe that there are ways to make AR both sustainable and private.
A few predictions about the growth of AR over the next three to five years:
A significant amount of content will be site-specific, or alternately, portably connected to special objects and talismans. Certain locations will have more content than others – for instance Manhattan will almost certainly have more content than the Cook Islands. On principle, well-executed AR will enable us to be more engaged with our environment and physicality, not less so. Defense, manufacturing, medicine, education and art will be the next major areas that expand. Social interaction/collaboration and light gamification functionality will be endemic to most AR applications. The graphic style of AR will change over time as cultural and aesthetic preferences change, and as interface conventions evolve.
Applications that present visual data that informs, astounds and delights us will be rewarded with patronage. It’s very likely that something similar to the current app ecosystem will arise in the AR market for glasses, but say goodbye to full-screen splashscreens: these apps will load nearly imperceptibly and will be available by the command of your voice, gestures, eye movement or even, eventually, thought. Everyday applications could include:
- Navigation around town, unfamiliar cities, and large buildings such as universities, airports, libraries, and large corporate and government centers
- As one of our workshop groups at VOX focused on, apps that shows live public transportation data around a city
- Cultural and educational applications that highlight sites of interest and re-enact historical scenes, display buildings and personages from the past, and regale the viewer with valuable visual and auditory information
- Productivity applications that enable new forms of collaborative creation
- Language translators
AR can be useful outside the city too. Here are some examples of applications that can keep you informed and inspired in the great outdoors:
- Continental tectonic plates
- Watersheds / waterways
- Landmarks and summits (ability to see them from further away)
- Planned path when hiking
- Flora and fauna visual guides
- In preparation for a trip: an app that visualizes the path of all the thousands of miles of cabling along the bottom of the ocean on a physical model of a globe, and then lays out the same visual lines whenever they would be visible to you from shore, boat, or even plane
Here in daqri-land, there are some very exciting educational apps we are in the process of creating that will make life-long learning exciting again. I can’t wait to show them to you in a few months. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the current state and future of AR.