What is Augmented Reality (AR)???

Augmented reality (AR) is changing the world: We take a closer look at how augmented reality apps, games, research and utilities are reshaping technology today.

As you wait anxiously in the motionless horde of cars tangled in rush hour traffic, you gather surrounding statistics through your digital LED contact lenses. Tom’s Pizzeria is five blocks ahead and was ranked four out of five stars by customer reviews. As for the woman in the beige Honda beside you, she has a Jack Russell Terrier named Charlie, is originally from Texas, and her favorite book is Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. The pack loosens up and you finish your commute home.

TweetmondoThree blocks away from your house though, your lenses display a Tweet from your wife, which says she’s watching a rerun of Seinfeld and is hungry for pizza. You consider turning around—Tom’s did get good reviews—but you proceed to your final destination instead, using turn-by-turn directions that appear above every intersection. No, you are not a Terminator sent here to aid Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in the destruction of John Connor, however. Rather, you are just an average Joe, with less than perfect vision, living somewhere in the near future, thanks to the promise of augmented reality.

What is Augmented Reality?

In 1990, Boeing researcher Tom Caudell first coined the term “augmented reality” to describe a digital display used by aircraft electricians that blended virtual graphics onto a physical reality. As for the computer science world’s definition of augmented reality (AR) though, it’s more detailed, but essentially the same: Augmented reality is the interaction of superimposed graphics, audio and other sense enhancements over a real-world environment that’s displayed in real-time.

AR is not a new concept either. In fact, we’ve seen it in many different ways over the years, but we just might not have noticed. From the yellow first-down lines sketched over a televised football game to the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit—or even examples as basic as where a projector’s been used to project images atop a real setting—all are examples of virtual graphics being superimposed upon a real-life situation.

So what’s with all the recent hype? Well, most AR researchers say there’s been hype for the idea of augmented reality since the 1930s. But most of its modern enthusiasm has been contained within the computing community. As for the sudden upsurge in public interest though, the mobile community has brought on this recent hype due to the increasing number of AR smartphone apps released this summer and following slew set to appear this fall.

Smartphone Apps and Gaming

According to Georgia Tech professor Blair MacIntyre, advancements in the mobile industry saved him and his research team from looking like Dan Aykroyd in the Ghostbusters movies—proton pack on back, goggles on head, and PKE meter in hand. MacIntyre has been researching and developing AR for 17 years, and has been Georgia Tech’s Augmented Environment Lab director since 1999. A variety of companies – many in the mobile, computing, media and gaming spaces – are suddenly jumping on the AR bandwagon, he says, because mobile communications and computing hardware has finally advanced to the point where it’s become a capable platform. In other words, thanks to advancements in modern cell phones and consumer electronics, MacIntyre and his researchers don’t have to stroll around campus in their headgear and computer backpacks anymore.

Interestingly, he’s currently focusing on augmented reality applications for the entertainment and gaming industries of all things. One of MacIntyre’s goals is to create interactive social games where a user can be immersed in a shared AR gaming space. Case in point: The Georgia Tech team’s most recent development, an interactive zombie-killing game called ARhrrrr.

ARhrrrrIn ARhrrrr, players point their mobile handheld devices—featuring a high-end Nvidia Tegra graphics chip—at a board-game-like map on the table and instantly, a 3D image of the zombie-ridden town pops up. You can move around the table and shoot zombies from any perspective – how’s that for a twist on a family game night? MacIntyre says his students love the game, and he’s observed some very interesting feedback from his players. Apparently, AR gaming is just as efficient at combining virtual and real worlds into a working platform as it is streamlining information and generating player empathy.

MacIntyre says that when players talk about the elements of the game, they refer to them as real life characters and situations rather than superimposed ones as well. “When the graphics effectively align with specific parts of the real world and we get this tightly accurate form of augmented reality, people start to really relate to their AR surroundings [the 3D images of the town and characters],” he claims. “They talk about the mixed space as if it actually existed and was theirs, rather than just a gaming platform.”

In the mobile communications realm, however, MacIntyre finds that AR applications (apps) for smartphones don’t have the best graphics and that their limited functionality isn’t the best demonstration of augmented reality in motion, but they do represent what AR researchers are working towards. He says these apps are a nice introduction to AR, but that there may be a double-edged sword hiding under that shiny, multi-touch LCD screen. “It’s good from a scientific view point because these smartphone apps are changing the way people can look at the world,” says MacIntyre. “But they also could be disappointing to consumers who were expecting more from this technology.”

layarIn the consumer market, developers argue that they’ve had positive feedback from smartphone users who’ve enjoyed AR apps designed for Google’s Android HTC G1 and Apple’s iPhone, though. Citing this enthusiasm, Munich-based AR development company, Metaio, aims to launch its new Junaio iPhone app on November 2nd. According to spokesperson Lisa Murphy, her company developed Junaio, which (like similar apps Layar and Wikitude) allows users to create and share any kind of location-based content, so that people could walk outside their door and be connected to both the real and virtual world. “We’ve been on the research and development side for a long time and it’s amazing that now we can provide this technology for the everyday consumer,” she says.

Still, reactions to the new smartphone apps are more promising at the consumer end of the spectrum than from the scientific community. Tobias Höllerer, associate professor of computer science and lead AR researcher at UCSB, says smartphones are an ideal starting point for AR technology because they include GPS hardware, cameras, and they’re portable. Höllerer further believes that mobility is the key to launching AR in a consumer market because we are such a mobile society. But on a more realistic note, he also admits that he feels the introduction to AR that the public is currently receiving through these mobile apps is not the best one, noting that these apps are not a good representation of AR’s true capabilities right now. “We have research systems from the early 1990s that can provide better image quality than these [current AR applications], but of course they’re not as mobile and would be much more expensive to mass produce,” says Höllerer.

What’s more, Höllerer is one of the Science and Technology chairs for the recently held ISMAR (International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality) conference. The 2009 edition heralded the conference’s 10th anniversary, and – for the first time – advancements in other categories besides science and technology, e.g. the arts, media, and humanities. More compelling than simple smartphone offerings, he says, are new programs featured there that include research and application in a variety of professions. Soon, he suggests, we may seem AR advancements that enhance the work of historians, art curators, digital media producers, experiential marketers, exhibit developers, human performance trainers and more.
Where is Augmented Reality Headed?

Höllerer presented his own work on “social augmented reality,” which involves a digital system very similar to the opening scenario’s cyborg lenses. It would be like having your own Facebook-esque abstract space—a virtual sharing of personal data that is linked to and placed atop locations in the physical world. “The main thing I want to work on is developing a better mobile user interface, something more robust and real,” he says. “Of course, the long-term goal is to see content overlaying across the physical world without some bulky device mediating.”

However you slice it, Höllerer and MacIntyre both agree that augmented reality has really picked up momentum in 2009. “I’ve had Google alerts for AR for a couple of years,” says MacIntyre. “Before I used to get one or two hits, but now I sit for almost two hours every morning following links to AR sites and stories.”

Nonetheless, we’re still a long way from the Minority Report-style sci-fi dream that people imagine when they hear the term “augmented reality,” though. The AR researchers we spoke with all agreed that this field is just getting warmed up. Still, for all their shortcomings, fans of various related smartphone apps can take heart in one thing. Such applications should act as a beacon to the average Joe, and prompt growing interest in the advanced augmented reality applications that will one day bring us a truly connected world.


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