I can think of a hundred different pre-cursors to the golden Nirvana of Augmented Reality. Howard Rheingold set the bar pretty high in his catalog of the state of the art called “Virtual Reality”. Everyone from the pre-history of VR to the then present day had their say of what the future should look like. Enter now, the future as it is. Cell Phones! That’s what we got, so that’s what we’re going to use right? Sure enough if you know your own coordinates using the GPS chip in a cell phone and you know the orientation of the camera in that cell phone, you can overlay data one what ‘should be’ in the field of view in that camera viewfinder, right? Well sometimes good is not the enemy of perfect and a company in Amsterdam has created a smartphone app that combines these required features to present a ‘good’ version of augmented reality. As this article in the NYTimes below states it’s called Layar.
Previously in the field of Virtual Reality everyone attempted to provide near perfect reality. Using magnetic trackers from Polhemus to be calibrated up to some kind of goggles or head mounted visual display. At MIT’s Media Lab the project called “Put That There” was originally for commanders in the Navy trying to assess and react to battle conditions on the seas.
The next revision came in the early 1990s at Boeing where they tried using headmounted computer displays. The display with fit over one eye leaving the other eye open to focus on work being done within the fuselage of an airliner being built. The worker could see displayed in realtime information about what they were touching and moving wires and cabling through. Access to information like that without having to stop, look at blueprints, read computer documentation or find spec books would save inordinate amounts of time and prevent mistakes in the routing of wires and cables. Fast forward to today and now you have the ubiquitious cell phone, with camera and GPS chip and a little bit of mathematics and algorithms. A programmer can determine the field of view from the GPS coordinates, get the cell phone’s orientation, map out what should be in the field of view and overlay that information on the LCD viewfinder as you point the cell phone in all directions. It may not be smooth or realtime, but it may be ‘good enough’.
Personally I think GPS should also be paired with a laser range finder so that the field of view can be further refined. That way when you point the camera at a building or a river, you can ascertain the GPS coordinates of the thing at which you are pointing. Once the solution is calculated you look it up in your points of interest database, voila, that’s so and so church, that’s so and so river. That quickly. Some have decried this tendency in usage of navigation devices. Once you fully empower the autonomy and self-sufficiency of a stranger in strange land, you rob him of the benefit of ‘local knowledge’. In that sense Augmented Reality will make us all dumber the more technology enables us to find out own way or learn landmarks without interacting with people. I say to those people I respond with this flip remark: “Bring it on!” If it means being stupid, losing local knowledge, alienating myself from my surrounds then by all means I would rather have that autonomy and self sufficiency wherever I travel. That’s the kind of guy I am.
Augmented reality will “reinvent” many industries, including health care and training, Mr. Inbar predicted. Already, researchers at the Technical University of Munich are looking at ways to display X-ray and ultrasound readings directly on a patient’s body. A research project at BMW is exploring how an augmented-reality view under the hood might help auto mechanics with diagnostic and repair work.