Google’s Android Arouses Augmented-Reality Dream

It’s amazing how the future catches up to us.

The idea of augmented reality has been around for decades. It has made (mostly fictional) appearances in everything from “Star Trek” to anime and even to the short-lived (and very odd) ABC miniseries, “Wild Palms.”

There have been several “real-world” applications of the technology, including Boeing’s headsets that help technicians unravel the spaghetti that is airliner wiring to the humble yellow first-down line we’ve all become used to when watching football games on TV. For most of us, the idea that we can overlay digital data on top of everyday reality has existed mainly in the realm of science fiction.

And there’s a good reason why augmented reality hasn’t entered into mainstream use. Take a glance at the rig needed for lifeClipper2, one of the most advanced augmented-reality systems out there, and you’ll see it’s not practical for most folks. Regardless of how useful it is, I doubt you’ll see tourists walking around with a head-mounted display and what looks like a laptop crossed with a GPS and topped off with a TV antenna anytime soon.

But the release of Google’s Android operating system for mobile phones changed all that.

Check out this demo of Wikitude, an augmented-reality travel guide, if you want to see what the future of mobile search looks like. By combining the camera on the phone with the built-in GPS and some fancy-schmancy programming, the Wikitude folks have come up with an application that gives you information about whatever you’re pointing your phone at. In effect, your phone can become a virtual “window” on the world that merges the information about your location with the actual image of your location.

The applications for travel and tourism are obvious. You no longer have to blindly wander around a strange city wondering what you’re looking at. Just point your phone at the monuments and buildings you see, and poof! There’s all the historical information (and possibly even dates, times, and ticket prices) that you’d need. Analog and digital reality combined.

Of course, the marketing applications for this are just as big. Systems like these (and I’m betting that they’re going to be ubiquitous in new phones within a year or two) would allow marketers to place virtual “billboards” or information displays anywhere they want.

Point your phone at a restaurant to get the times when it’s open, a menu, and (with the touch of your finger on the display) make a reservation. Point your phone at a movie theater to get show times and buy your tickets with a tap of your finger. Look at a retail store and get a list of items on sale and even special “augmented-reality user only” coupons.

Sure, these are probably somewhat trivial examples of commercial applications, but you get the idea.

A big challenge facing digital marketers everywhere is crossing the screen chasm, bridging the space between cyberspace and the “real world.” The alliance between e-commerce and online advertising has pretty successfully crossed this barrier when it comes to online commerce.

As far as the rest of our lives are concerned, the gap between what happens on our screens and what happens in the “real world” has been a very real but slowly narrowing space. Mobile devices like BlackBerrys and iPhones (and, I’d argue, even Amazon’s Kindle) have begun narrowing the gap for most of us, but as far as a seamless melding of the real and the virtual goes, we’ve been a ways off. Augmented reality has the power to change all that.

Sure, this Wikitude example might seem a little clunky, but what new tech doesn’t? The important part isn’t what it looks like now, but what it may look like in the future as technology continues to shrink and connectivity becomes more ubiquitous.

Being able to finally ditch our LCD screens and merge reality and online information (along with having technology that’s location-aware enough and contains enough image recognition power to know what its looking at) will open up new worlds for us in the decade to come. It may not look like much now, but it’s definitely a view into the future of where information and marketing combine.

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