Two Augmented Reality Technologies That Are About To Change The World

Augmented reality is a technology futurists and scifi authors like Vernor Vinge have been talking about for decades. Now the tech has matured and is entering the market. Two videos of new products show you the near future.

In a nutshell, what augmented reality does is provide you with an information overlay for your daily life. In Vinge's latest novel Rainbows End, the scifi author and computer scientist imagines a world where everybody has computers networked into their glasses and clothing. These wearable computers allow people to do things like google information straight into their eyeballs while chatting on the street corner - or project a map overlay on the street in front of them, labeling every store. Or turn the local vacant lot into a wonderland filled with Pokemon characters ready to do battle. This is an augmented reality scenario.

Now our technology can actually do this, using smart phones as a crude mobile interface. In these demo videos below, we're getting a first glimpse of what happens when the internet comes out of the box and into the real world.

Map overlay

This is a demonstration of software called Layar which works on the Android/Google-powered G1, giving you a sleek Google Maps-esque interface over your local area. You can aim your camera at a street in Amsterdam, and ask to get information about houses and businesses on the next street over - or two miles away. It's sort of like being Batman in Dark Knight, when he used information from cell phones to get a map of what was happening in the a building two floors down from where he was.

What does this mean for the future? In cities, we'll be living in augmented reality. If enough people enter data into an application like Layar, you could conceivably take a tour of San Francisco's Mission District just by having your phone lead you to spots of interest, which it would label with helpful information and even messages left there by your friends.

You could image "location stickies," which would pop up when somebody (or a specific person) walked by a particular mailbox or coffee shop.

Of course there would also be location-based spam and advertising too. Shop keepers could hover virtual signs outside their shops, which would alert you to a sale when you passed by. Or a travel agency site could blast you with popups outside stores that sell luggage.

Once this technology is integrated into something you can wear easily, like glasses, your vision of the world may look similar to what you can see on this G1.

Fantasy overlay

Here you can see a demo of design software called ARToolWorks which was posted on Gizmodo earlier this week. ARToolWorks is a mobile phone application that allows you to design 3D objects that pop up out of scenes you view through your mobile's camera. So instead of a map over the city of Amsterdam, you might see giant robots trashing it or psychedelic flowers growing out of a hash bar.

What does this mean for the future? This technology is particularly relevant for gaming, as you can see in the demo where they show how somebody could throw virtual dice on top of a table. There is even an app for the iPhone called ARf, which creates a virtual dog that can run around on top of any surface you aim your phone at.

This kind of technology will make it possible for people to play videogames in the park, using their bodies to run around instead of their fingers to poke buttons on weird controllers. Using goggles and Wii-like, motion-sensitive controllers, you could enter a gamespace with other people where the local park became a showdown between knights and dragons. The software would make your friends appear to wear armor, and position dangerous beasts behind hillsides or trees.

It might look something like that top picture, which is from a fashion show that included holographic imagery. You can see the real people, but an imaginary, machine-generated beast swims around them.

Your fantasy world will become an overlay on reality. This is your first chance to see what the internet might become decades from now.

Image via Metaverse Territories