Nov 30, 2010

Augmented Reality Part One: The Low Down

Josh Williams's picture
Josh Williams
Director, Product Strategy

Augmented reality isn’t exactly new, according to Bruce Sterling it’s at least 17 years old. Here’s a useful diagram made in 1995 by a couple of Sony’s tinkerers to call out the differences between AR, VR, ubiquitous computing, and classic GUI-based HCI:

Given the recent proliferation of AR mobile apps and marketing campaigns that litter magazine covers and product packaging, we are starting to talk about it again. AR is zeitgeisty. It’s in the iTunes Store, the Android Marketplace, and Samsung announced it would be bundling an AR browser into phones, and if you check out AR’s position on Gartner’s famous Hype Cycle curve, you can see that it’s still climbing the slope of Unrealistic Expectations.

So here is the skinny on the types of AR things people are making now, so we can get some ideas on what they should be designing instead, and hear about the challenges that will impede wider adoption and evolution of the technology.

What is AR?

For most of the people, AR means applying a layer of information to a user’s view. There are some examples about the use of haptics or sound, but most were either of little tags of info floating around city streets or 3D renderings of comic book supes that you could fly around a room.

There are 2 types of this visual AR, and I’m sure you’re already familiar with some example of each.

  • Mobile AR (MAR): you open an app on your smartphone, and you hold it up like a magic lens that shows you an otherwise hidden layer of information floating around the world.
  • Webcam or kiosk AR: it requires holding up some sort of marker to a cam, which an app recognizes and uses as registration to render proximate information over live video feed from the cam. Markers can either be the big, ugly, black and white blocks that look like scrambled bar codes, or just some shape that the app is able to recognize.

What are people doing with AR now?

On the webcam side, most examples are essentially neat little gimmicks or novelties that had been built around a brand. They were the sort of thing that grabbed your attention, that you played with for maybe 5 minutes, but after that you were probably ready to move on.
One AR app I've come across, seemed like it had been designed to endure longer than 5 minutes was the “Do Crew”—an animated game for children that used the webcam to bring the viewer into the story. Here’s a clip of the demo:

MAR apps are more interesting, but there are a lot and they all do mostly the same thing. You hold up your phone and look around in order to find floating tags of contextual information (tweets, shop names, reviews, etc.). Unfortunately for the makers of these apps, hardware and geo data really isn’t ready for these sorts of experiences. GPS inaccuracy is measured in tens of meters, and compass inaccuracies is measured by tens of degrees. This means that the information people are seeing when they peer through their phone’s camera rarely aligns properly with the real world locations.

The Tagdis iPhone app decided to embrace the inherent inaccuracy of location registration in MAR by weaving it into their game mechanics. When a Tagdis user sprays a tag, it’s understood that they’ve tagged not a specific surface but a general area. Like Foursquare, the tagger then can “own” that area until one of his/her competitors comes along and tags over their piece. E23 Games, the makers of Tagdis, are aiming to be the Zynga of social, casual AR and mobile gaming.

Stay tuned tomorrow where I will continue the conversation around AR and cover how companies are making money, what our biggest challenges and opportunities are when designing in this space.

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