Augmented reality is a composite, real time view of the world overlaid with computer information or graphics. Augmented reality has been getting a lot of attention since the announcement of Google Glass, a glasses frame with smartphone capabilities, and other similar projects, but the idea dates back to the 1960. In 1968, Ivan Sutherland, a computer scientist at Harvard, and his student Bob Sproull, built “The Sword of Damocles,” a head-mounted graphics display suspended from the ceiling. Now most augmented reality revolves around mobile computing, using smartphone and tablet applications that incorporate imagery from the camera.
At present, augmented reality has not fully lived up to its potential due to difficulties tracking and mapping the real world. This is changing, however, as computer vision software and hardware improve. For example, first generation augmented reality systems would require stickers and markers similar to QR codes to map out space for computer generated objects in the display, but current apps have better spatial awareness and use GPS coordinates to pin objects to locations. In the Minecraft Reality app currently generating a lot of excitement, users can build objects with 3D blocks and then virtually place their creations into the real world and take photos from any angle. Some games further blur the line between the real world and virtual reality such as T(ether), which allows users to manipulate virtual object on an iPad with an augmented reality glove and motion capture cameras.
Augmented reality also has serious business applications. Apps can send users coupons, advertisements, reviews, or tips based on their locations, and can also be used to try out virtual objects like furniture before buying them. Ikea’s 2013 catalog and Phillips TV Buying Guide both use applications with this capability. The business and advertising use of augmented reality continues to grow, and Juniper Research estimates that AR apps will generate close to $300 million in global revenue in 2013. Leveraging augmented reality for advertising and marketing, however, creates new legal concerns about truth in advertising – will that IKEA virtual desk really look like that in your living room? – and privacy with regard to tracking user coordinates.
Beyond games and ads, augmented reality also has major current and proposed applications in policy and security. For example, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga is using an augmented reality app in his reelection campaign that provides educational material on the election process, news, and videos with the help of image recognition for smartphone users, who already make up 7% of Kenyans. Augmented reality has also long been proposed for military training and intelligence delivery, and heads-up displays with targeting information have been in use for years.
The most high-profile recent application of augmented reality has been the development of wearable computer glasses for regular consumers. Google Glass, which is set to go into production in 2014 and is expected be priced between $600 and $3,000, will bring smartphone functionality to glasses so that users can interact with a half-inch display in the corner of their vision. Google Glass was named one of Time Magazine’s best innovations of 2012, and has inspired Apple and Microsoft to file patents for potential competitors.
If Google, Apple, and Microsoft are serious about making augmented reality a part of our lives the same way as smartphones, we can expect a boom in innovation and development. One of the areas with the most promise is further improvement in computer vision so that augmented reality applications on out mobile devices can consistently recognize objects and locations. We are already seeing progress, and competition between the three technology giants may give the burgeoning technology the push it needs.
As augmented reality continues to evolve and merge with fields such as Big Data and biometrics, it can have profound effects on security, privacy, and lifestyle. Apps could, and probably soon will, match faces of strangers with their Facebook profiles or search for them in biometric criminal databases. Using image and location recognition combined with publicly available or purchasable information, augmented reality applications could show who owns a car and where its been from the license plate, identify and provide relevant information on landmarks and artifacts, or compare prices for goods that we see at a store. While some of these applications are troubling from a privacy perspective, others can be highly beneficial. Augmented reality applications have been discussed to show service members overseas locations for past ambushes or IEDs, and similar technology can warn civilians to be careful on a street with several recent muggings. With GPS and mobile computing, we already have access to instant information about the world around us, but as augmented reality continues to advance, this information layer will grow more populated and our ability to interact with it will become much richer.