By Eileen Blass, USA TODAY
Steven Feiner wears Vuzix Wrap augmented reality eyewear during a demonstration of an augmented reality marble labyrinth game.EnlargeClose
By Eileen Blass, USA TODAY
Steven Feiner wears Vuzix Wrap augmented reality eyewear during a demonstration of an augmented reality marble labyrinth game.
That virtual yellow first-down line superimposed on an actual football field is one of the more visible examples of a technology that is still not well known. But augmented reality is quickly emerging from obscurity and could soon dramatically reshape how we shop, learn, play and discover what is around us.
In simple terms, augmented reality is a visual layer of information — tied to your location — that appears on top of whatever reality you're seeing. Augmented reality (AR) apps have been increasingly popping up on smartphones and camera-equipped tablets such as the iPad 2. Versions of AR also work in conjunction with webcams, special eyewear and game consoles such as Microsoft's Xbox 360 via Kinect or the Nintendo 3DS handheld that went on sale recently.
"Extraordinary possibilities are right around the corner," says Microsoft computer scientist Jaron Lanier. "We're closing in on it."
•Pointing your phone at a famous landmark and almost instantly receiving relevant historic or current information about your surroundings.
•Fixing a paper jam in a copy machine by pointing a device at the copier and, directed by the virtual arrows that appear, pressing in sequence the right buttons and levers.
•Visualizing what you'll look like in a wedding dress without trying it on.
Today, luminaries of the field are gathering at the ARE 2011 (Augmented Reality Event) conference kicking off in Santa Clara, Calif., to discuss AR's future in e-commerce, mobile, real-time search and story telling, among other areas.
In one form or another, AR technology dates back at least 30 years, says Ramesh Raskar of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, where some of the pioneering work was done. Now, a confluence of ever-improving technologies — cellphone cameras, more powerful processors, graphics chips, touch-screens, compasses, GPS and location-based technologies — are helping drive AR forward. GeoVector, Layar, Metaio, Quest Visual, Shotzoom Software, Viewdle, Total Immersion and even Google Goggles are weighing in with AR-based smartphone browsers or apps.
A recent report from Juniper Research in the United Kingdom found that an increasing number of leading brands, retailers and mobile vendors are investing in mobile augmented reality applications and services. Global revenue is expected to approach $1.5 billion by 2015, up from less than $2 million in 2010. And Juniper found that the installed base of AR-capable smartphones had increased from 8 million in 2009 to more than 100 million in 2010.
Steven Feiner, a professor of computer science at Columbia University, and one of the gurus of the field, says augmented reality can exploit all the senses, including touch and hearing. For example, imagine a virtual character following you around and whispering relevant information in your ear.
Augmented reality already has real-world applications:
Games: For some consumers, their first encounter with AR is likely to be at play. The NBA's Dallas Mavericks recently teamed with Qualcomm and Big PlayAR on a promotion that turns a ticket into an interactive basketball game when viewed through an Android-phone. The game is the first commercial application to take advantage of a mobile augmented reality platform launched recently for Android developers by Qualcomm.
Nintendo 3DS offers an archery game that also takes advantage of AR. Aim the handheld's camera at an innocuous-looking AR card placed on a coffee table, and watch fire-breathing three-dimensional dragons appear to rise from the surface.
Gaming publisher Ogmento's Paranormal Activity: Sanctuary is a location-based multiplayer iPhone game that lets you project ghosts and other supernatural effects onto a real world scene.
Shopping: The Swivel Virtual Dressing Room under development from FaceCake Marketing and scheduled for retail stores and perhaps your own bedroom closet, promises to let you try on virtual duds and accessories in real time. Swivel was demonstrated recently at the Demo high-tech conference. Among the scenarios CEO Linda Smith talks about: taking consumers virtually from a store floor in Atlanta to the streets of Paris to envision what they'd look like wearing the latest spring dress in front of the Eiffel Tower. A shopper might watch rain bounce off a virtual umbrella.
EBay Classifieds takes the shopping experience in a different direction. It worked through Metaio's mobile Junaio augmented reality browser to deliver an Android and iPhone experience that lets you point a smartphone at houses along your block and see pop-ups of any items your neighbors have put up for sale.
EBay also has an AR app that lets you try on virtual sunglasses before choosing which, if any, to buy.
EBay Mobile Vice President Steve Yankovich says the goal was to make the utility of the app 80% to 90% (of the experience), and the wow or gee-whiz factor, 10% to 20%. If it were the other way around, he asks, "What is the point?"
Frank Cooper, chief consumer engagement officer for PepsiCo Americas Beverages, concurs: "The most powerful form of AR may not be the flashy examples," but rather "the ones that serve basic needs of people: information, entertainment, social connections."
Still, Pepsi has shown off flash. In one early-stage example, the company worked with Rihanna on an augmented reality promotion in which you could hold a webcam in front of a code on a bag of Doritos and project an image of the singer performing a new track. Might there be similar efforts? "That's one area we're exploring aggressively," Cooper says.
Still a learning curve
Still, for all of AR's promise, its future success is by no means a slam dunk. Some of the early AR apps on smartphones are clumsy to use and unnatural. Eyewear for consumer use hasn't been perfected. "The optics and display trickery to get the thing right — that's not easy," says Microsoft's Lanier.
"For better or worse, a lot of what has been perceived as mobile AR is gimmicky," says Jay Wright, director of business development at Qualcomm. "The challenge with AR is to find uses that solve a real problem and enable something fundamentally new, useful or uniquely entertaining."
Bruno Uzzan, CEO of Total Immersion, the company whose technology is behind the eBay Fashion sunglasses app, says AR stops being a gimmick "when my client says I'm making more sales with AR than without it." One such client is Hallmark Cards, which produces AR cards that come alive with animations when you hold them up to a webcam.
AR adoption won't come easily. "In the first case, the hurdle is education — not just for consumers but for brands, developers and services providers," says Windsor Holden, a U.K.-based analyst for Juniper Research. "There is still a pretty widespread lack of awareness as to what AR is."
Forrester Research analyst Thomas Husson also says mobile AR is not yet delivering on its promise. But "in the years to come, this will be disruptive technology that changes the way consumers interact with their environment."
The disruptions are likely to evolve in many different ways. At the MIT Media Lab, Ramesh is working on 3-D motion-tracking Second Skin technology, in which tiny sensors and a microcontroller are bound to the body through a lightweight wearable suit and used to augment and teach motor skills. Say you're learning to dance or to juggle. The system can track your movement and provide tactile feedback that corrects your position as you go.
"Think of Second Skin as your real-time assistant," Ramesh says. "I call it an experience overlay. I'm not playing a TV game where I'm learning how to juggle. I'm doing real juggling."
Ramesh says the technology could cost as little as $1,000 and be in the market within a year. It could have broad reach into health and education; for example, teaching someone to perform surgery.
At Columbia, one of Feiner's areas of focus is maintenance and repair. "I'd like to be within the task itself. If you had AR with proper (virtual) documentation, you could look at a machine, and it would show you first do this, then do that, with a little bit of extra highlighting to walk you through."
Gazing further out, Microsoft's Lanier says he'd like to see the road he's driving on augmented with signs of where there've been accidents and traffic jams. He'd love to be able to walk into a neighborhood and see what it was like back in time —San Francisco during the Gold Rush, say.
Lanier also expects, within 15 years or so, a new futuristic outdoor national sport to materialize with virtual game elements that don't necessarily resemble any of our current pastimes.
And he predicts way out in the future that you'll be able to experience a physical product you might want to buy, AR versions of a chair, for example. When you find one you like, you'll make a payment, a machine will chug, materials will somehow be piped in, and the new chair will be in your house.
For now, it seems like a pipe dream, fodder for a Jetsonian age. But consumer product strategists are already paying attention to AR.
As Cooper of PepsiCo warns his peers: "Ignore AR at your own peril."