EVEN BETTER THAN THE REAL THING - AUGMENTED REALITY
Stefan D. Stefanov
Have you ever wondered if this new restaurant is good or if this theatre play is worth seeing or if this shop has anything special to offer? Or have you ever been in a new city and not had a clue as to what to do in your leisure time?
Imagine you are in Tokyo. This is your first time in Tokyo, and Japan for that matter. You don't like guided tours or you just wanted to spend some time strolling on your own. You wouldn’t want to miss the interesting stuff, though, so you take out your mobile and check what others have to say about the points-of-interest on this very street you’re walking along.
On the screen of your mobile, via your camera, you see your surroundings - a cafe, a bookshop, a small hotel, a garden with a couple of statues, a bus stop, a house or a club. Next to some of these, or possibly all of these, you see a pop-up. In each pop-up there may be a personal comment of the place, a short story, a picture or a video. You can read what others who visited these places think of them, and - if you are the listening type - perhaps make or change your decision whether to spend time on them or not. All of this is available at a touch of the screen, instantly.
It is not, unfortunately, available to everyone everywhere. In fact this is a service currently offered by Japanese mobile operator AU KDDI on a limited range of latest model mobile phones, and for the territory of some Japanese cities. Based on real time collaboration among services now traditional for a contemporary mobile device, like the camera, GPS, and internet-connectivity plus social networking, when the user looks at the screen, he or she will see an image of his surroundings, pinpointed by GPS satellites, with a “balloon” containing information about the particular point-of-interest drawn from the short messaging social networking tool Twitter. This is called Augmented Reality1.
The pop-ups approach is not as cool as having a “virtual Japanese guide walk[ing] along with you providing simple information about each area.” (DoCoMo 2009). In July 2009, Japan’s biggest mobile carrier, NTT DoCoMo, “demonstrated the power of Augmented Reality to the public with a panoramic photo of Yebisu Garden in Tokyo.” (DoCoMo 2009). The user could receive topical information about various spots and items in the garden by an animated guide talking to them, suggesting places of interest. With a Japanese software company porting the experience of AR to the i-Phone, announced on November 30th, 2009, the ability to momentarily obtain “various real-time information such as the store sales, newly opened stores, movies, concerts, exhibitions etc.” (pin@clip 2009) becomes a service of growing popularity. Quite unsurprisingly, it all starts in Japan. Hopefully, we Europeans, and our fellows Americans will get access to a service of the kind in a few years' time.
Let’s not wait until then. Now imagine you are on an excursion to the town of Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria. The Old Capital, as it is also known, has some rather fascinating sites to show, but the most interesting of these have, unfortunately, been destroyed long ago - for example the King’s fortress and castle. Using one of those “magic” devices for taking advantage of Augmented Reality we are now able to actually “see” what the millennia-old town has to offer to the sight-hungry tourist. As we climb Tsarevets, the King’s Hill, massive stone-and-wood-wall premises, ornate churches and gorgeous palaces unfold before our eyes. They are non-existent now, only humble ruins overgrown with grass. The magnificent buildings we see are a simulationprojected on top of the cobble streets of the King’s Hill.
All of this, however, seems quite real. The views are displayed on special 3D glasses we are wearing that cover the whole eye-range. The mind would be incapable of distinguishing the ‘projected’ from the ‘real’ reality were it not for the special tags show by each building.
Head-mounted displays have been used in research and training facilities for a couple of decades now. We have seen this cutting-edge technology in many films too, just think of James Bond or any of those space-battle science fiction movies and TV series.
Augment reality is not, however, just a fantasy or a restricted-access military project. Sports fan, among many, enjoy the benefits of AR without even pausing for a second to think about this. “The augmentation is conventionally in real-time and in semantic context with environmental elements, such as sports scores on TV during a match.” (Augmented 2010).
There already are plenty of implementations of AR, in navigation devices where one can receive direction hints or current traffic updates, with the military leading the race with the head-mounted displays fighter-jet pilots wear that include full interactivity, including eye pointing. AR is also used in surgery, machine building and maintenance, architecture, entertainment and education, providing additional information about the object being reviewed into the field of view.
Despite the huge application potential of Augmented Reality, the process of supplementing the physical real-world environment with semantic elements may also produce a negative effect on people. While modern societies are already suffering from the excessive Internet-addiction of adolescents and young to middle-age adults, AR could prove to be another brick in the wall that severs us, the 21st century version of Home Sapiens from nature and life lived "really".
Teenagers are already spending more time, much more time in fact, communicating with each other over instant messaging channels such as Skype, ICQ, IM+, Twitter etc. in comparison to the amount of time spent engaging in physical talking. Youngsters are more prone to prefer an online meeting in a chat hub to a get-together in a café or club.
With the increase of popularity of Augmented Reality utilities, are we risking losing the ‘real’ world and replacing it with a reconstructed version of it that fits our desires and needs? Is the World Browser by Wikitude (2010), for example, a most convenient application that “presents the user with data about their surroundings, nearby landmarks, and other points of interest by overlaying information on the real-time camera view” (Wikitude 2010) of their Android OS-based smart-phone a real threat to anyone? Is AR an ill omen of humanity’s headlong fall into the trap of a ‘real’ world that only exists within the Matrix, and up to the limits imposed by the Mastermind machines?
I don’t know. I must go tend my chickens and fruit garden in FarmVille2. Oh, and I’ve also got crops to gather...
1. Augmented Reality is an interface technology that enables a variety of information to be added to real environment images using a computer (Aplix Drives 2009). [back]
2. FarmVille is a Facebook application recreating agricultural activities and life. It currently has 74,806,786 monthly active users (January 2010). [back]
Aplix Drives 2009: Aplix Drives the Development of Augmented Reality (AR) Technology With NTT DOCOMO. // PR-inside.com, 23.07.2009 <http://www.pr-inside.com/aplix-drives-the-development-of-augmented-r1403595.htm> (11.12.2010).
DoCoMo 2009: DoCoMo Augmented Reality Concept at Wireless Japan 09. // Akihabaranews.com Inc., 22.07.2009 <http://en.akihabaranews.com/23828/phone/docomo-augmented-reality-concept-at-wireless-japan-09> (11.12.2010).
pin@clip 2009: pin@clip, new i-Phone app.for AR experience in Shibuya. // Akihabaranews.com Inc., 30.11.2009 <http://en.akihabaranews.com/25872/phone/pin-clip-new-i-phone-app-for-ar-experience-in-shibuya> (11.12.2010).
Augmented 2010: Augmented reality. // Wikipedia.org, 11.12.2010 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augmented_reality> (11.12.2010).
Wikitude 2010: Wikitude World Browser. // Wikitude.org, 09.08.2010 <http://www.wikitude.org/en/category/02_wikitude/world-browser> (11.12.2010).
© Stefan D. Stefanov