Augmented reality (AR) is actually a pretty broad term, since it applies to almost everything between virtual reality and actual reality. It’s any juxtaposition of computer-generated content into what we perceive to be real. From virtual haptics to heads-up displays, AR enhances our senses. Scientists, programmers and industrial designers have been toying with AR since the 90s but it really hasn’t caught any attention until recently. The main reason AR has taken so long to catch on is because the core concept relies on transparent video screens – expensive, poorly functioning transparent video screens. Luckily, our everyday mobile devices now have the processing power, the large screen size and most importantly the live camera capability to simulate a transparent display, which has allowed the concept to finally come to fruition.
For instance, Yelp.com has a mobile application that allows you to view information and comments on nearby businesses. That’s common in an app, but shake your phone three times and Yelp transforms your phone into a viewer that actually sees this data posted in real time on the buildings as if they were signs hung in their doorways. Boelter+Lincoln has recently created an AR app for the iPad that to allowed tradeshow reps the ability to use their tablet computers as virtual X-ray goggles. Potential customers could see through the casing of their product to a life-size computer generated cross-section. Clever activists at Occupy Wall Street have even used AR to create a virtual protest. View the Wall Street area through this app, and you’ll see a legion of virtual protesters in a place where real protesters were evacuated long ago. The possibilities are endless! What if Howstuffworks.com let you virtually look inside any of the machines they explain? What if Rome had an App that overlaid renderings of the past over their ruins? What if you could visit civil war sites and view an AR battle in-place? There’s so much content to be delivered, AR is clearly going to gain momentum in years to come.
If you’ve ever seen a sci-fi movie in which a soldier receives data on a target via a tiny screen in his goggles, that’s where augmented reality is headed. The military has actually been using transparent monitors to superimpose data into soldier’s line of sight for years, but with a hefty price tag. As the technology becomes cheaper it will certainly enter the consumer market. One of the first places we could see this used is the automotive industry. Back in the 90s I used to drive a Nissan Maxima that projected the speedometer onto my windshield, so it can’t be too far off in the future that we see all of our car windows becoming capable of AR. Imagine taking the family on a road-trip in an enhanced “cAR”. The kids in the backseat could be learning about the different landmarks and animals they see as you drive simply by pointing to them on the window. They could bring up relevant web searches and videos, and share them with friends, all on the otherwise invisible pane of glass. Meanwhile the driver up front receives heads up visual GPS directions across the entire windshield. A simple voice command could have your smart windows find the nearest gas stations and highlight the ones with the best prices. It could even highlight oncoming hazards and obstacles, enhancing the driver’s awareness and improving reaction time.
At the rate these technologies are weaving themselves into our lives, that doesn’t seem like too distant of a future. I think its safe to say that augmented reality will become less of an add-on feature and more of a necessary method of information delivery. So what’s all this have to do with advertising? Hey, if ever there’s a screen that people are watching, there’s ALWAYS available ad space.