If you define GPS locating as part of Augmented Reality (AR), and most do, then mobile devices went AR some time ago. So “Augmented Reality really goes mobile” might mean that AR on mobile devices is a natural hookup, and we can expect to see much more of it. Okay. That’s probably so true, but it’s not saying much. There is no definitive description of Augmented Reality, mainly because it crops up in new ways on new devices with some regularity. Loosely, however, it means adding computer generated images and information to a view of something in the (real world) environment. Typically, this is a map or an image feed. Most mashups using maps (Google Maps), which incorporate GPS or database information overlaid on the map, are a type of AR.
By now an ‘augmented map’ should not be novel; and you don’t need to be on the move to appreciate the easy way such maps provide a wealth of information, say, as you plan a trip sitting at the kitchen table. However, as you move about, the changing environment naturally provides an interesting background for added information. The mobile devices that can deliver the AR experience come in a lot of forms. Most people will think of smart phones or other hand-held digital devices; but it could also be something like a GPS device that talks, comments, and perhaps gives a guided tour. AR in such formats is ‘natural’ – that is, the added information is timely, accurate (mostly), and useful (usually) – so people rapidly become accustomed to it. In short, this kind of AR is no big deal for the user, unless it doesn’t work.
It’s expected that 2010 will be a year when the flourishing software applications (apps) for the Apple iPhone and the myriad Google Android-based phones expand the AR market. Current estimates are that AR apps will run around $2 million this year, on the way up to over $700 million in 2014. Most of these applications tie into maps or live feeds of streaming images, and then overlay ‘context sensitive’ information. Context sensitive may refer not only to the map or image on display, but also to things that the device picks up from the environment via microphone, camera, or other sensor. For example, the map might show you at the intersection of two streets, but the camera detects that you’re actually in one of the stores at the intersection. Then the AR feature rolls our information about what’s on sale in that store…etc.
The question many people have is whether the user – the person holding the smart phone – is going to be willing to hold the thing out in front of themselves more or less constantly, while new information comes up on the screen. Actually, that’s a rhetorical position. People will not be willing to do that. They’ll haul out the device and engage the AR, for the most part, if and when they think they need it. It’s partly a function of the small screen, which isn’t the easiest to read; partly a function of not needing the information all the time; and partly that the integration of AR features may lead more to confusion than enlightenment. (Who wants to see non-stop ads when in a store?) One more thing: You’ll need to pay for much of the AR functionality. Certainly the connect time costs money, and some AR services will have separate fees.
So what about Heads Up Devices (HUD)? That’s the jargon for visors, helmets, glasses, goggles, and even retinal implants, which can provide a wealth of AR type information without needing hands or even requiring direct attention. They are the ultimate in mobile AR. About thirty years ago this technology was almost exclusively the realm of science fiction. No more. The military have been using the HUD technology for quite some time, so much so that it’s deployed into combat. However, for consumers, the options are – and will continue to be – limited. HUD style equipment is available for some types of video games. The good stuff is extremely expensive, as is the software. Much of the serious AR devices of this type are still in research labs, where they tend to blend with Virtual Reality (VR) devices.
Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are different, of course, since one is predicated on fakery and the other is mostly based in reality. Technically, however, they’re very similar and can use almost identical equipment. The difference is, roughly speaking, in the software and the underlying media. Virtual Reality is like a movie with, possibly, AR on top of it. The goal of VR is to make the simulated experience as real as possible. The goal of AR is to affect the perception of reality so that there is greater understanding, or in a sense, greater realism. For the most part, VR will not be mobile. Much of AR will be mobile.
As of 2010, the technology for delivering AR to mobile devices exists. Most mobile devices, whether phones, computers, or hybrids will be able to support at least some AR applications. In some places, because of bandwidth limitations or access restrictions, mobile AR may not be available, or practical. The big hope though, is that there will be some ‘killer app’ or combination of AR features that not only drives the market, but that can encourage routine use on mobile devices. GPS functionality is already almost in that category. There may be others, and they could well appear in 2010.