When so-called ‘virtual reality’ devices first emerged in the late sixties, the public’s imagination was captured by the possibility of entirely fabricated ‘three-dimensional’ worlds, in which humanity might one day work, socialise and play.
Back then, the interface with these worlds was a head-mounted display unit so heavy it had to be suspended from the ceiling by wires. But even as the required hardware shrank to a more manageable size, immersive virtual reality systems were rarely seen outside military facilities or the bedrooms of particularly enthusiastic gamers.
While the world might have settled on the more prosaic screen-and-keyboard interface, the possibilities of virtual worlds still excite the collective conscience.
One such world, Second Life, attracted waves of publicity and business interest for several years, with Reuters even opening a bureau in the blocky online universe staffed by a full-time reporter. That closed in May, and it now seems doubtful that the concept of an enterprise-ready virtual world will ever reach the mainstream.
Now, though, a hybrid of virtual reality and, for want of a better term, actual reality, looks set to do just that, in the form of augmented reality. AR can be loosely defined as a set of technologies that superimposes context-relevant information over visual stimuli from the environment.
Like so many technological marvels, AR technology began life in a military context. Heads-up displays, in which information is presented on a transparent screen, have long been used by the military as a way of keeping fighter pilots focused on the outside world rather than their gauges and dials.
Augmented reality applications
Try these AR apps on your smart phone:
Marks nearby London tube stations on a camera overlay, including line and approximate distance. Gaining a popular following among tourists unfamiliar with the tube network. Requires the compass in the 3GS.
Review site Yelp’s iPhone application has a new ‘monocle’ function (requires Apple’s 3.1 update) that stamps restaurants, together with star rating and distance, over the device’s camera. Can provide directions on a 2D map using Google Maps, but also requires the 3GS compass.
A ‘general-purpose’ AR browser that allows you to tag real-life items with text and 3D images. This effectively adds a layer of searchable user-generated content to the real world. Everything from landmarks and restaurants to homes and offices can be tagged.
HUDs are now appearing as options for certain civilian vehicles (such as the new Toyota Prius). And some enterprise applications have emerged, although so far they have typically been limited to stockpicking headsets for more efficient warehouse logistics. But it is in the realm of consumer mobility that augmented reality is really beginning to take off.
“The drive [for augmented reality] is coming from the consumer end of things, as opposed to more formalised research,” says Gartner research fellow Stephen Prentice, “through a combination of the availability of a lot of different elements.”
The first of these, he says, is the “explosive proliferation of smart mobile devices with data tariffs and sensor capabilities such as location, acceleration, video and the processing power to actually do something with it”.
The second is “the cloud in the background: free data feeds are an integral part of this. You can only have augmented reality if you have access to the augmented information. For widespread deployment they need to be available for free, and uniformly.”
The final element, explains Prentice, is the rapid innovation generated by application distribution mechanisms such as Apple’s App Store, “which allows people to get highly speculative and highly innovative apps out to a user base without needing a formal business plan”.
It’s a system, he says, that “tends to encourage off-the-wall ideas, many of which fail, but a few of which provide a major breakthrough. People will buy a pointless app at 99 cents because at 99 cents how much point does it have to have? The expectations are lower, and all of this sensitises people to the possibilities.”
Examples of mobile AR applications include a tool that overlays the device’s camera feed with arrows pointing to nearby train stations, tourist attractions or restaurants (complete with reviews and star ratings). But while AR mobile applications like Nearest Tube (iPhone), Yelp’s Monocle (iPhone) and Layar (Android) have triggered some hype, it has been “mainly among people who are naturally interested in this stuff, such as early adopters and tech geeks”, according to IDC analyst Jonathan Arber.
“People have been talking about AR for a long time, but we’re only just starting to see useful real-world applications,” he says. “No one has come up with a compelling business use case yet.”
One woman who would disagree is Lynne Murray, head of design at AR start-up Holition. The firm’s software employs a user’s webcam to apply the jewellery items to their image, allowing customers to try before they buy. Using a paper or plastic ring, bracelet or earring printed with a marker, Holition’s software reproduces a 3D image of the product that tracks to the user’s wrist, ear or finger in real-time.
The technology required to do this has existed for some time, and has cropped up in novelty marketing campaigns by companies including BMW, Toyota and Samsung. But until now, explains Murray “it hasn’t been used for a specific business need”.
“One way we see this working really well is the way it gives an intimacy with the product: it’s a classic sales technique,” she says. “In the jewellery sector, once someone is wearing a product they make that next jump by almost feeling they own it – you can screen-grab yourself wearing the product and send it to someone saying, ‘Hey, doesn’t this look good on me.’”
Murray envisions the markers being distributed as plastic giveaway items with magazines such as Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar, on wristbands at festivals, tear-outs on receipts, or even in stores where space is at a premium and a full product range may not be available (such as airports). The company was launched in June at Coutts London Jewellery Week with a paper wristband that attendees could use to ‘try on’ digital products. Holition has since signed up a Dutch jewellery firm and is currently putting together pilot projects with several “top-level companies”.
The focus is currently on jewellery, but Murray says Holition’s remit “is anything worn on the body.” However, rendering moving clothing in real time is beyond the computing capability of today’s standard desktop or laptop PC. “Clothing is the Holy Grail and the next step, but the power required to generate real-time graphics using our technology isn’t quite there yet,” Murray says. “But it’s a technology that’s absolutely on the curve of interest – we’re launching an eyewear product shortly.”
When AR does take off, Murray suspects adoption will be led by the Japanese. “Our business model identifies Japan as one of the markets that would be a good early adopter of the product; it’s a society very attuned to early adoption, particularly of mobile devices. We used it as a commercial proof of interest and we have very open doors when we are ready to go there.”
Current adoption of AR is coalescing around mobile devices. However, the prospect of ‘Terminator vision’ – where information is projected directly onto the user’s field of vision, as seen in the popular science fiction film – is now approaching reality thanks to nanotechnologist Babak Parviz from the University of Washington.
“We’re trying to put a semi-transparent display on a contact lense,” he explains. “It’s a very challenging project, requiring a number of sophisticated technologies in electronics, radio, optics and solar cells to come together to make the final system. We’ve already developed a lot of the core technology, and we’ve been able to incorporate a high-frequency antenna and radio on a contact lense as well as developing extremely tiny light sources.”
Protecting the eye from the circuitry was a major issue, solved by enclosing it in a biocompatible polymer, as was the challenge of powering the lense. “We also had to make sure that it would not heat up and that it would be safe to use in contact with the eye,” Parviz explains.
"Augmented reality is here to stay, and we’ll see a lot more of it as mobile devices become more sophisticated"
Batteries were quickly ruled out, “as a lot of the chemicals are quite harsh and in the event of an accident you don’t want the eye to be exposed to energetic metal ions and things like that”, in favour of solar power or radio frequency waves (already used in RFID technology).
“The version we have now is radio frequency powered, which gives enough power to run a radio, and we’re also looking at using solar cells to collect light from the environment, much like an old-fashioned solar calculator,” he says.
The team is already testing the lenses on rabbits and expects to start increasing the complexity of the pixels and number of light sources. “As you increase the number of pixels, the sophistication of the information you can display increases,” Parviz says, predicting that the technology could eventually be used for displaying captions, emails and reminders.
“If some day we can develop a higher resolution and decent graphics, then the applications become innumerable. I think a lot of things possible in this space have not even been thought about.”
It could, he suggests, render many of the displays that currently clutter today’s environment, from mobile phones to billboards, obsolete, “although that’s the ultimate dream and many years away”.
“The timeline is hard to predict, and this is actually really expensive research,” he explains. “We have to resolve the scientific issues, and depending on how we’re supported and at what level, this could go much faster or slower. We also have to deal with regulatory issues; because the device is in contact with the body, we have to make sure it’s safe.”
‘Terminator vision’ might be a long way off, he says, “but I think augmented reality is here to stay, and we’ll see a lot more of it as mobile devices become more sophisticated”.
The current excitement surrounding AR may have as much to do with fashion as it does a genuine need for the technology, but that is not to say it is destined to disappear soon as yesterday’s fad, says Gartner’s Prentice. Fashion is underestimated as a technology driver, he postulates, “even in business”.
“Business people love to pretend they are objective,” he explains. “But Linden Labs points out that whenever senior business users become more involved in Second Life, the first thing they ask for is a better-looking avatar. I am absolutely convinced that for leading-edge users there is a perception of value that has little to do with device.”
In other words, while AR is about “two-thirds up the leading slope of the Gartner hype cycle”, the current buzz around AR may actually be self-sustaining. That’s because beyond the gimmicky nature of many current applications, AR addresses a very real problem, one that is familiar to business users.
“We have huge amounts of information, and it’s usually incredibly difficult to find it when you want it,” says Prentice. “Yet most of that information is location based and context sensitive. To be able to give me the information I need at the time I want it is to add value to the information: don’t tell me stuff I don’t need to know now, tell me something when I need to know it.”
Neither should societal acceptance be discounted as a means of determining the success of an AR platform, he adds.
“At the moment [AR adoption] is dependent on the acceptability of the device,” Prentice explains. “To me, a lot of this is about social norms and adoption. It’s largely normal to wander around looking at a mobile phone, and only a few years ago someone with a flashing blue light in their ear would have looked strange. At this point in time, if you walked around in goggles no-one would stop you, but you’d get strange looks – that’s perhaps three or four years downstream.”
AR remains, he says, a fascinating example of “the relationship between people and technology, how it changes behaviour and expectations of individuals within the business and how business reacts to that. These are real-world issues we are facing in the short term, even if it’s the more esoteric stuff that hits the press.”