One of the technological revolutions just around the corner is the wonderful world of augmented reality. For those of you who aren’t too familiar with this concept, it will within a few years become quite mainstream and there will be many applications of its use that you will depend on daily. Augmented reality refers to software applications that place generated graphical, aural and textual information on top of real-life imagery. At the moment, this is mostly the realm of mobile phones such as the iPhone or Android; however, in years to come many expect that there will be optical versions available that are similar to eye-glasses or even contact lenses.
What I want to do is take a look at some of the possible applications of augmented reality – where it will be of great positive use, where it will tap into the more unfortunate aspects of society, and finally where it could (and most likely will) be abused and cross boundaries that we really may not be ready to cross. I’m not going to be able to cover every type of augmented reality application here; but we’ll work our way through a good selection of basic categories to get you thinking about where this technology might progress. I’m going to be splitting this up into a number of different posts over the next few days, so stay tuned and come back for the rest of the series!
Having said that, I’m going to start with some of the exciting applications – the things that we get to look forward to…
Part One: The Good
One of the first widespread applications of augmented reality that we are going to see will revolve around navigation. These are the kind of augmented reality applications that are already available, and they are only going to become more commonplace. We are all now used to satellite navigation systems in both our cars and on our phones, but within the next year or so this is going to be taken to next level and you are going to see displays that overlay directions on top of an image of what you are seeing in front of you.
By combining software such as Google Street View with navigation programs, and then coupling that with the compass and GPS available in your mobile phone, you will be able to hold up your phone in front of you and view your needed directions on top of what you are seeing. Finding your nearest tube station or bus stop, department store or art gallery, will be as simple as selecting your destination and then following the trail. In the near future this will be done through your mobile phone, but in the more distant – but still foreseeable – future this will likely be done through a worn headset of some description.
The mobile internet boom has shown us that no question is too obscure to ask anymore. Within moments of asking a question, you will often have somebody around you who is typing it into their phone and providing you with the answer (or at least a number of possible answers) within a few minutes. Augmented reality is going to take this to a whole new level.
Firstly, you will have location based information. The history of buildings and landmarks will be clearly displayed, and will quite often be accompanied by video or sound of some description. Educational materials will be greatly enhanced through the use of this, with one of the more common examples given being a field trip to an old battlefield whereby you can walk around the physical area and learn about particular locations and movements within it.
Beyond this, and more impressively, will be the use of object recognition technology. Want to know what model of car that is? How about the history of a famous painting? Or even which style of art or architecture a particular object belongs to? How to name different objects in any language you can imagine?
All of these examples, and many many more will become possible in the very near future. Of course, the accuracy of such applications will need to be honed and tuned over time as technology progresses – but you can be assured that such applications will arise. The entirety of human encyclopedic knowledge will at some point be placed onto our viewpoint of physical reality, a truly exciting prospect!
Social networking is about to get a whole lot more real. Augmented reality and social media are just destined to be together, and indeed many of the current and coming-soon applications take advantage of this easy fit. Twitter is going to be the first form of social media that you are going to see in this arena, and there are already applications available that overlay tweets onto their real-world locations.
Walk past a restaurant and you’ll be able to see what previous customers thought of it, hold it up to a movie poster and see an aggregated rating from thousands of people who have seen it, or even tighten the focus and just see what your friends and connections think of various things in your locality. Think of this like a form of virtual graffiti, but hopefully with more of a purpose than random tagging and profanity!
Taking this application even further, it will be possible to have details on display of the location of those you know (if they want you to know, of course) – you’ll know how far away they are, what they are commenting about, and possibly even where they are headed. You thought you knew a lot about your friends now with social networks such as Facebook and Twitter? Just imagine how much more we’re all going to be connected in the near future. Of course, this brings up some important ethical concerns; which we will be exploring throughout this series of articles.
Many will say that this category isn’t necessarily a good thing, but that’s a whole different conversation and we will be looking at some aspects of it in the next entry in this series. For many, shopping and material items provide happiness and satisfaction and augmented reality is only going to make it easier to find what you are looking for (and be told of many things you never even knew you wanted!). You can absolutely 100% guarantee that some of the first, more widespread uses of augmented reality applications will be for the purpose of advertisement and commercial profit.
It goes a bit beyond the obvious though. The first steps, and the ones we already have available, combine commercial entities with the navigation aspects mentioned above. Want to know where the closest Starbucks or McDonald’s is? No problem. But what else can we expect to see? Well, the answers to that are almost endless (and many cross over into the ‘entertainment’ category that I’ll get to in a second) – and where there is money concerned you know there is going to be a lot of time and effort put into finding new ways to make you spend it.
Is somebody playing a song that you want to purchase? Hold up your phone, it will hear the music and show you an image of the album cover along with track details. If you don’t want to go and buy the physical media (for which directions will be provided instantly to the closest retailer), then just purchase the song instantly through the usual digital distribution channels. Is someone carrying the latest bag that is just to die for? Your augmented reality application will be able to tell you what you are looking for and where to find it. The closest available taxi will be tracked and shown on your display, and quite likely in the not too distant future called and directed to you. All nearby restaurants, bars, and cafes will be reviewed and their menus easily available at your fingertips. Detailed sales information for all books, dvds, and videogames will be available.
Every consumer convenience you can think of will be at your fingertips – some of them designed by the companies themselves to promote products, others by consumers to share information about products. Augmented reality is primarily about information, so think of a kind of information you are going to want to access while out and about and you can almost be certain that it will eventually be there for you.
We can’t talk about augmented reality without talking about gaming. Videogames have always pushed certain forms of technology, for the simple fact that people always love to be entertained. By overlaying games onto our real life environments, it will be possible to create immersive experiences the likes of which we have never seen before. This will start out quite experimentally, and probably in a very novelty based kind of way, but the possibilities are endless.
Some of the current uses highlight simple ways to use this technology – from hunting ghosts around your house, to new-wave scavenger hunts around your local downtown. There are some great examples of ways to utilise toys and items around your house, turning them into troops and characters within games where the terrain is your living room. There are also a number of toy-based entertainment possibilities, rather than forms of skill-based gaming, which will just give us a laugh or two whilst playing around with our local environment and creating a virtual element to it. The possibilities are as varied as you can imagine, and many of them are going to be an absolute hoot!
Education, Engineering, and Medicine
The final category I want to look at here puts together many of the truly beneficial uses of augmented reality for society’s progress. Many of the benefits for education have already been examined, and the impact that they are going to have on how we learn and teach is going to be huge. There are many different ways that people take in knowledge, and augmented reality will allow for a more visceral and hands-on experience that many will find advantageous. Medical training will be revolutionised, with visualisations and simulations becoming standard training practice.
Engineering is a field where we will see some great innovations take place. Overlayed plans for builders and manufacturers will make these tasks far more accurate and less prone to error. Architectural designs will easily be adapted and placed into a visual environment that you can walk through. Even personal projects such as home-improvement will be made much easier, with detailed instructions visible over what you are seeing and doing. I hope you’re beginning to see the common theme, which is that anything that can benefit from having extra information placed alongside our physical perspective will be improved greatly.
Medicine is the last, but by no means least, example that I’m going to discuss – and it is one that has some remarkable possibilities. On a basic level, your GP will have access to your previous medical history and be able to distinctly visualise areas of trauma and disease that you may have suffered from.
Ultrasounds and other forms of medical scanning will change from being distorted two-dimensional representations to completely three-dimensional views. Surgical training and even procedures will be enhanced greatly through augmented reality. Teleoperation (from a distance) of surgical procedures will become possible, which seems slightly terrifying at the moment but given enough time to develop could truly revolutionise global medicine – at the very least it will allow world-class advisors to be guiding those currently operating through the process and will provide excellent resources for preoperation information and data collection. Medicine truly is one of the areas that is going to see a huge advancement thanks to augmented reality technology.
I hope that I’ve been able to get you excited about some of the possible augmented reality applications that are on the horizon. Some of them will just make our lives more convenient or fun, some of them will make us more knowledgeable and worldly, and some of them will revolutionise certain aspects of future society. However, there are darker sides to all such advancements. Unfortunately, there are elements of augmented reality that are going to have the possibility to tear apart many of the elements of life that we hold dear if implemented in the wrong manner. Over the next few articles in this series I will be exploring some of these possible pitfalls.
Next time, we’ll be taking a look at some of the bad examples – those that aren’t necessarily damaging or entirely negative, but rather are just poor implementations or play with elements of our lives that we may not want to broadcast so readily. Stay tuned!
As always, we’d love to hear from you about augmented reality – in particular for this article, what do you like? What augmented reality applications that you can think of excite you?