To round off the high-tech day of EDGE2011, delegates were taken on an inspirational journey through the world of ‘augmented reality’ by Lester Madden, Founder of Augmented Planet.
Augmented reality is very different from virtual reality, which a decade or so ago was predicted to be the next big thing, Madden said. While virtual reality involves immersing yourself in a computer-generated environment, cut off from the real world, augmented reality is the opposite: it adds information to what is actually happening around you.
As a concept, this is not new, he said: “if you have an electronic camera, the chances are you have a read-out about the battery, and how many pictures you have taken, overlaid on a live image. That’s augmented reality.”
Other current examples include a feature on some smart-phones allowing people to hold up the phone in front of their eyes and text using a transparent keyboard, while using the camera to see their way in front. “Even watching Sky News live and you see a Sky logo in the corner of the screen – that’s augmented reality as well.”
Future applications will be far more powerful, adding layers of information live into your view of the world, Madden said. So far example you could pan your phone around onto people and see what they are tweeting or posting on Facebook appearing in the air.
Some augmented reality applications use ‘markers’ – simple blocky black and white graphics that identify the positioning and scale of a real object to the computer to allow virtual enhancements to be overlaid in three dimensions with the right perspective, and to track movement, he said. In a live demonstration, he asked the session’s chair Kevin Winkler of New York Public Library to hold up a piece of paper with a marker on it. By running an augmented reality programme, he was then able to overlay three-dimensional, fully-labelled internal human organs onto Kevin’s image as if delegates could see through him in a scientific cutaway.
Markers can also be used in magazine adverts, for example to produce three-dimensional images of cars shown, and allow them to rotate or change colour; or to have 3-D dinosaurs hatch out of eggs and wander around a children’s book, roaring.
Markers are not possible to use in all circumstances, however, as you have to place them in advance, Madden said. But ‘markerless’ technology also exists which can recognise faces, or be triggered by location, for example offering information about a part of a city where you are walking. This could include information about books written about or inspired by an area – of interest to libraries, he said.
The technique extends into ‘visual search’, which allows you to point your phone at an object or image and identify what it is, Madden said. For example you could be near a building that looks interesting and an app could identify it, and add contextual information. It could identify a work of art in a book or gallery, even quite obscure works; and there are even apps that can translate between languages, translating road signs or warning notices, for example, and presenting the same images back with the words translated.
Other applications scan barcodes or even just identify products by scanning what they look like. For books, this could mean identifying a book and informing the user how they could buy it or what libraries have in stock.
All these kinds of applications are currently quite cumbersome used with a little smartphone but the time is coming in 10-15 years when we will have headsets or ‘augmented reality glasses’ so that data overlays can be viewed much more easily.
These technologies could have huge money-saving potential, for example saving money on workplace training, Madden said. The car-maker BMW is looking at using augmented reality to help engineers service their cars, he said: “it’s quite expensive to train someone to service a car – but if an engineer comes into a service centre with augmented reality glasses, it could just say ‘now remove cowling screws’ and show visually where they are.”
For libraries, augmented reality techniques will help people locate books and access information and social media comments on them as they look at them, Madden said. RFID is also going to be hugely valuable for augmented reality, as it will help system identify not just what type of object something is, but which precise object it is.