Augmented Reality Already Is the Next Big Thing

Carl Weinschenk
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Somebody doesn't have to be an advanced planner to see the possibilities, on the consumer and business sides, of augmented reality (AR). The good news: AR already is here.


As the name implies, AR focuses on superimposing information on a still or moving image. The possibilities are virtually limitless. Think of the impact on consumers and retailers if a shopper can focus on a car, a can of peas or a widescreen television and see the price of the same item at dealerships, groceries or electronics outlets in a 10-mile radius of where he or she is shopping. Think of an executive walking down the street while viewing the PowerPoint of a conference call in which he is participating.

The list of possible uses is endless. The more exciting uses - and those involving a helmet instead of a smartphone - are in the near future. The New York Times reports that Google is expected to introduce Google Glasses this year. The project is shrouded in secrecy, of course. But it is clear that anything Google does will be big news. The Times description, which implies a sort of melding of the wearer's brain and Google's universe of servers, is subtly chilling:

Several people who have seen the glasses, but who are not allowed to speak publicly about them, said that the location information was a major feature of the glasses. Through the built-in camera on the glasses, Google will be able to stream images to its rack computers and return augmented reality information to the person wearing them. For instance, a person looking at a landmark could see detailed historical information and comments about it left by friends. If facial recognition software becomes accurate enough, the glasses could remind a wearer of when and how he met the vaguely familiar person standing in front of him at a party. They might also be used for virtual reality games that use the real world as the playground.

Google may be the most influential company planning to implement AR, but it is far from the only one. Existing projects generally involve data superimposed on a smartphone screen. This tibbr video offers some examples of AR, and hints at the expansive potential of the category.

Vergence Labs is working the goggle idea as well. This PCmag story is accompanied by a couple of videos. There are a couple of approaches mentioned. One is a third-person camera, in which images from another device are routed to the person wearing the headset. Another approach focuses on data around the edges of a frame. The piece says that the ability to discover the name of person the user is looking at through a link to Facebook - providing the subject being viewed is a member - is possible. It also is fraught with privacy concerns. The takeaway isn't whether this is permissible, however; it's that it is possible and seemingly not too far off.

John Parkinson, the head of the Global Program Management Office at AXIS Capital, sees the possibilities. He offers some examples and some salient questions. The issues deal with storage of the massive amount of data that is generated, reconciling all that data, audit trails and security. The interesting thing is that Parkinson writes as if he has spent a lot of time considering the value and challenges of this technology. He, at least, is way past the "wow" phase and into how the technology can be applied.

It's not all about goggles, however. A GPS image of a map with exits and street names on the image is a form of AR. Indeed, perhaps the most compelling thing about AR is that, as glitzy as it is, it is a natural and seamless extension of things that have long been a part of the telecommunications landscape. It is as potentially useful and as it is glitzy.

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