Thursday, May 21, 2015

What is augmented reality?

Augmented Reality in Mini Cooper.
Image from Car and Driver
Last December, when I predicted the top technological stories of 2015, I overlooked augmented reality. In the last few weeks however, there has been an explosion of news stories featuring this futuristic medium.

Augmented reality is a media experience that adds digital information to the world that you can interact with in the same manner that you interact with the physical world.  According to Dr. Alan Craig in his book Understanding Augmented Reality Concepts and Applications, there are four key aspects of an augmented reality experience:

  • The physical world is augmented by digital information superimposed on a view of the physical world.
  • The information is displayed in registration with the physical world.
  • The information displayed is dependent on the location of the real world and the physical perspective of the person in the physical world.
  • The information displayed is interactive in a way that allows the user to sense the information and make changes to the information if desired.

While there are many mobile applications that provide supplemental information about the real world based upon the location of the user, most do not meet the definition of augmented reality because they do not display that information in registration with the physical world.

At the Shanghai Auto Festival a few weeks ago, the Mini Cooper division of BMW demonstrated in an interesting application of augmented reality where a driver wearing a special pair of glasses can "see through" the blind spots caused by the car's roof and sides.  When the driver looks in the direction of the blind spots, the system replaces the roof and sides with views from cameras located at the exterior of the car.

Many of the early augmented reality applications were designed to add information to printed material. When the user aimed a device's camera at selected content on the printed piece, the content was replaced with a video or a three dimensional representation that added information to the printed content. This is an interesting use case because the "reality" being augmented is itself a two dimensional representation of a different reality. In my opinion, most of the print applications of augmented reality have been mostly gimmicks and not very useful.

Beyond print enhancement, digital augmentation of the real world has tremendous value in entertainment, transportation and many other fields. Some of the most useful applications will be in automotive safety where the systems can highlight potential dangers before the driver might see them without the augmentation.

What part of your reality would you like to augment?

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