Augmented Reality: Bringing It Down to Earth

You might remember the buzz GE generated back in March with the release of its SmartGrid Windmill Technology augmented reality ad. If not, check out the links and watch the video, because descriptions don’t do it justice.

But if you’re too lazy, here’s the skinny: if you printed out a sheet of paper with special markings and held it up to the Web cam, you’d be gifted with a 3D animation that magically “unfolded” from the paper (at least in the view you saw through your computer screen). It was pretty jaw-droppingly cool and smart: when you were done playing, you ended up with a printed ad on your real-world desktop.

While still in its infancy, augmented reality (define) is a new technology that makes you begin to understand the potential for the blurring between the “real world” and “cyberspace.” It’s actually been around for quite a while.

Depending on your definition, it’s existed at least since 1992 when first used at Boeing to help technicians assemble aircraft cables. Now that Web cams and location-aware camera phones are ubiquitous, augmented reality is beginning to make the leap from techie gee-whiz toy to something with broad commercial appeal — and offers some pretty exciting possibilities for marketing.

Augmented Reality: Real-World Examples

It’s kind of amazing how this technology is already being used to promote products.

Eminem’s promoting a new album. The U.S. Postal Service has a pretty nifty (though in my experience pretty buggy) augmented reality application that enables you see if your shipment will fit into one of its mailing boxes. Topps allows you to “play with” 3D replicas of ballplayers on your physical desktop. Ray-Ban lets you “virtually” try out its sunglasses, and hardcore Trekkers can Experience the Enterprise simply by printing out a paper “trigger” and holding it up to their Webcams.

It ain’t the Holodeck (define), but it’s still pretty cool.

When Augmented Reality Apps Go Mobile

While most of these nifty toys will quickly lose their appeal (except for the Ray-Ban application, which actually might help sell quite a few pairs of sunglasses), the real cutting-edge action is happening on mobile devices, such as the iPhone or Google’s Android phone. In most cases, these applications take advantage of the phone’s location-awareness to provide a virtual “window” into the real world that’s overlaid with information about what you’re looking at.

Wikitude AR is probably one of the best known (and one of the first) examples of this kind of augmented reality application. Hold your phone up to a building in the “real world,” look through your phone’s screen, get a whole bunch of information about what you’re looking at. It’s pretty amazing.

IBM is working on a similar commercial augmented reality app called Seer that provides context-based information about businesses and buildings.

Layar, billed as the world’s first mobile augmented reality browser, represents one of the most interesting developments in augmented reality. Layar considers itself a Web browser with an open API; companies can create their own “layers” that provide information about physical spaces when people point their Layar-equipped mobile devices at them.

Rather than create a proprietary database of locations, Layar has the potential to open up the world of augmented reality to any company that wants to play. Think old-school AOL’s walled garden (AR up to now) vs. the wide-open Web.

What’s more, the explosion of location-aware apps since the iPhone’s arrival suggests that consumers use their phone to get information about what they’re interested in and where they happen to be. Considering the popularity of next-generation mobile devices (such as the iPhone or phones running Android), it seems like we’re approaching critical mass.

The main problem is content. If the city where you try to use your augmented reality app doesn’t have augmented reality information in the database, the app is useless.

Open systems like Layar offer the potential to change that. But unless it’s adopted as an open standard (or some big carriers get behind it and sink in the dough to build its database and solicit “Layers” from local businesses), adoption might be slow to non-existent.

Bringing Augmented Reality Back to Earth

Another factor: the interfaces available to access mobile applications involving augmented reality. While some of us might be able to handle the geekiness of walking around in strange cities holding our phones up in front of our faces, it’s questionable whether most consumers will be OK doing the same thing.

Wearable transparent screens would be the best solution. For now, most are incredibly expensive and make you look either like a welder or a cyborg. (Note to product designers: why can’t you folks make electronic-enhanced eyewear that doesn’t look like it should be worn by X-treme sports d00dZ or sci-fi geeks.

If past technologies are any indication, we’ll get to the point where augmented reality goggles are as comfortable (and — please — stylish) as regular eyeglasses. The popularity of portable video and audio (and new technologies such as transparent OLEDs make it a given that there will eventually be light, cheap, wearable displays for consumers.

Already, the desktop is disappearing and more people are getting used to the “real world” and the “virtual world” blurring together via their mobile devices. Already the lines between what counts as “online” and “traditional” advertising are going away. Experiments on the bleeding edge of augmented reality offer us a window into the future when the “real” and the “virtual” become indistinguishable.

And that’s when things are really going to get interesting.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.