Augmented reality applications (or AR applications for short) are a new breed of smartphone applications which make use of geographical data (such as GPS and location information) and camera data in order to display relevant information on your smartphone about nearby places, objects and people. This information is often overlaid (“augmented”) in real-time onto a physical image to form an “augmented reality” view of the world.
Augmented Reality Browsers
Two of the best known augmented reality applications are called Layar and Wikitude. Both applications are free and can be downloaded onto your iPhone, Android or BlackBerry smartphone. The two applications take information from hundreds of online sources such as reviews of restaurants and local businesses, live travel timetables, tweets, house prices and more and overlay them onto a live view of your surroundings.
As I load up the Layar application in central London, my phone begins to show some icons and information about nearby shops and places of interest transposed onto a real-time image from my camera. I can see some reviews and ratings for the café just across the road. Layar tells me the nearest Tube Station is just 400 meters down the road and that it’s served by the Circle and District lines. With a tap of the screen, I can bring up a live departure board showing when the next train departs. Great, just enough time to grab a cappuccino from the café across the road! Similarly, using Layar, you could point your phone in the direction of a house which is for sale and it’ll bring up the price, floor plans and photos of the interior. This information is all downloaded from the internet through your smartphone’s 3G connection and is displayed on your screen in real-time.
Augmented Reality and History
Although augmented reality is at its most useful when showing live and real-time information such as train times, it’s been used to bring history back to life too. Visitors to London can enjoy the Museum of London’s two free applications: StreetMuseum (iPhone & Android) and StreetMuseum Londinium (iPhone & iPad). The applications map historical photos of London onto their present-day locations: stand in the right place and hold your camera up to the present day street scene and the app shows you the historical photo as if your smartphone were a portal through time.
Looking beyond London, many other cities have augmented reality applications which help to put history in context. For example, visitors to Berlin can use the Berlin Wall Layar to see a 3D recreation of the Berlin Wall in its original location complete. The 3D recreation is superposed onto the present-day scene as viewed through your smartphone camera.
The Google Goggles application is also worth a download (free for iPhone & Android). Using your camera and image recognition technology, Goggles is able to recognise the landmarks and paintings you are looking at and can instantly direct you to webpages with more information about them. Finally, if you’re more interested in the rest of the Universe, Google Sky Map (free application for Android) shows an augmented reality view of the night sky highlighting constellations and other interesting astronomical landmarks.
Augmented Reality and Translation Applications
One of the exciting applications of augmented reality comes from when it is combined with translation technology. We recently discussed Google’s speech-to-speech translation application for Android: the application listens to what you say in one language, translates it and reads it back out in another language.
Google have integrated the same translation technology into their Google Goggles augmented reality application. With Goggles, it is possible to take a photo of a sign or a restaurant menu in a different language and Goggles will attempt to translate it into your native language. Unfortunately, it’s a bit slow and cumbersome at the moment: rather than translating a video feed in real-time, it’s necessary to take a photo of what you want to translate first. Word Lens (£5.99 for iPhone) makes some progress on this front for Spanish-to-English translation but we’re unlikely to see a reliable and real-time augmented reality translation application for a few years yet.
Augmented Reality Gaming
The games industry is catching on the use of augmented reality in smartphones too.
Gameloft’s NOVA (available on iPhone & Android) is a first-person shooter game which makes uses the gyroscope in your smartphone. To look around the game world and to aim your gun, you actually have to physically move and aim your phone: your real-world actions are mapped onto actions in the game world. Whilst the gyroscope control system does make the game more difficult to play sat on a sofa, the gyroscope aiming system and use of augmented reality adds an extra level of realism to the game.
Games such as Zombies, Run! and SpecTrek also make use of augmented reality. The first makes use of your location via GPS to create a story line which plays through your headphones as your jog whilst the latter application adds virtual ghosts to your local area which need to be tracked down by visiting a real physical location.
Augmented Reality and Facial Recognition
The Terminator films show us a terrifying glimpse of a world where augmented reality goes wrong. In the films, killer androids roam the Earth scanning human faces, comparing them to SkyNet’s database and eliminating unlucky victims. The key technology which links the people’s physical presence to their digital identity in SkyNet is facial recognition.
We have discussed augmented reality applications such as Google Goggles which perform image recognition to recognise landmarks, products or Sudoku puzzles. What if augmented reality applications over the next few years start using the facial recognition technologies currently used for photo tagging in Facebook, Picasa and Apple's iPhoto? Combined with a publicly accessible database of photos from social networking sites such as Facebook or Google+, such a future augmented reality application could potentially give you the name and contact details of a complete stranger as you walk past in the street and in real-time. For many of us, that’s a worrying thought.
Augmented reality and facial recognition technologies already exist and work independently of each other: it’s only a matter of time before somebody tries to combine them. Such an application would seamlessly link together our offline identity to our online identity and the details we choose to share on social networking sites. What would it mean to you if your real-world identity became permanently intertwined with your online identity? Does this application of augmented reality worry you or does it simply require us as a society to become used to a new level of privacy?
The Future of Augmented Reality: Your thoughts
Augmented reality applications allow us to perceive the world around us in new and extra-sensory ways. There are a lot of exciting applications of augmented reality: travel, history, education, translation and gaming just to name a few. But there are some worrying uses of augmented reality too: whilst we are generally happy with the idea of augmented reality showing us more about the places and objects around us, the idea of augmented reality showing us more about the people around us seems more worrying.
We’d like to hear your views on the future of augmented reality. What’s the future for augmented reality? What applications of augmented reality would you like to see and how would they enhance your life? Would you wear an augmented reality contact lens (pictured) or would you prefer to keep augmented reality applications within your smartphone? Drop us a comment and let us know what you think.