Augmenting Your Reality

Simply put, augmented reality (AR) is adding visual information to the world the user is standing in. But it’s ultimately a buzzword that’s used as a bucket for interesting new technology that doesn’t fit nicely into other categories. Some obvious examples are Pokemon Go and Ikea’s mobile app that lets you project furniture into your living room.

Other than these few obvious examples, AR hasn’t yet penetrated our daily lives. The technology isn’t seamless yet, but with nearly everyone carrying around a computer in their pocket, it’s a matter of time. Businesses haven’t figured out how to make AR useful instead of something seen as a gimmick. AR is still looked at as a concept of futurism rather than a practical tool to provide a benefit to users.

It’s easy to imagine the uses in mobile gaming. Players can use their devices to see things in the world that aren’t there and react to them. Imagine a recreation of the classic Space Invaders game where you run around outside shooting imaginary lasers at imaginary spaceships. Sounds like it could be fun, right? So let’s apply that same process to the real world…it’s a little bit harder.

The other day my fiancé and I were looking at the wine selection in a grocery store. She promptly whipped out an app and took a picture of a wine bottle’s label to see reviews and a description of a particular wine she was considering. Leveraging her device, she added information to her retail experience and allowed her to make an informed purchase.

Now let’s consider how we could take that one step further with AR. What if she held up the phone at the shelves of wine and the app applied a green highlight to all the bottles rated above 4 stars? That’s definitely more seamless than snapping a pic with an app and seeing the rating of just one particular wine. Then perhaps she could click on bottles she was interested in to get a quick summary. Talk about an improved experience for the consumer!

We’re right on the cusp of the technology. All of the pieces exist to create an application with that experience, but putting them together in an efficient and functional manner would be a bear of a task. You would need:

  • A giant, complex database of the products that contains enough information about the labels for image recognition
  • A camera on the device with a good enough resolution to recognize the nuances of the labels from a distance
  • An algorithm to optimize sending camera stills to the backend for processing, so as not to constantly stream video across the user’s data plan
  • An implementation of an AR interface
  • And so on…

The augmented reality piece may actually be one of the easier development parts on the list. Over the last couple years, several AR frameworks and libraries have become stable enough for basic consumption. One example is ARToolKit for the Unity game engine. It’s not particularly easy to jump into, but like any SDK, is quite doable once you dig into the documentation.

I think we’re close to seeing an AR boom on mobile, the market just needs a catalyst. Pokemon Go provided the technology awareness that was needed, now we just need a practical example to follow suit. The catalyst might come in the form of an add-on device…something like a new Google Glass, but not as ridiculous looking. Or it might just be that the industry needs to be led by example in this particular area since it’s so new.  Who will lead the way?