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The Dawning Age of Augmented Reality

Written by Brent Wiseman on November 10, 2015

Futuristic smart glasses

If you’ve ever watched a football game on TV, whether you realize it or not you’re familiar with the concept of augmented reality. Seems all the networks these days project a yellow stripe onto the green field to show viewers how far the team with the ball must advance to obtain a first down.

Except the stripe is not truly “projected.” Fans in the stands never see it, only the folks at home. The broadcast technicians are using computer technology to overlay the football field with a graphic showing a yellow stripe aligning perfectly with the position of the first down chains. This “augmentation” is so helpful and accurate that viewers at home often know whether their team has achieved a first down before the players do.

That’s how it’s supposed to work with augmented reality. Unlike virtual reality, which totally replaces your world with an unfamiliar digital world, augmented reality works to enhance, or extend, the world with which you are already familiar. It’s much less jarring and disorienting. By gently overlaying elements of your familiar world with helpful graphics (or in some cases sound or video), a well-designed augmented reality (or A.R.) application can make your world much more user-friendly and/or entertaining.

Imagine this: as you walk down a brightly lit city street wearing a pair of A.R. goggles and turn your head to look at a restaurant, a window appears on your field of vision showing the menu, prices, as well as reviews by patrons. Or how about this one? You’re shopping in an enormous big-box warehouse store. You speak the name of the item you’re seeking, and a series of brightly colored arrows appear on the floor (which only you, through your goggles, can see) leading you straight to the correct aisle and shelf.

It’s not science fiction. The software and technology to support applications like these is readily available.

But wait, you may be saying. I don’t own a pair of A.R. glasses– and even if I could afford a pair, would I really want to appear in public wearing something that unfashionable?! A fair question. But here’s the kicker: if you own a smartphone or a tablet, you already own a potential A.R. device. Augmented reality glasses, goggles and “smart helmets” promise the potential for hands-free A.R., and the concept has enormous appeal and potential– but most of these devices are not ready yet for general consumption. In the meantime, any smart device with a video camera and a screen will work just fine, provided the software is there.

Augmented reality apps work by intercepting the video stream coming in from a video camera. In a matter of milliseconds, these apps recognize familiar patterns (such as the outline of a football field) in the video frame; determine the camera’s orientation toward that object and the object’s distance; and substitute specified pixels in the frame with replacement pixels (for instance, a yellow line where the green of the field was). The app then sends the transformed image as output to the screen, and the user sees only the enhanced (or “augmented”) image.

For creative developers, the possible applications for this technology are limited only by the imagination. Health care professionals, engineers, and assembly line workers can view systematic instructions and access essential resource information through A.R. goggles as they perform their jobs. Interior designers can mix and match 3D holographic furniture items in an empty room and watch as an A.R. app “paints” the surrounding walls in any virtual color. Children watch with amazement as 3D holographic images appear as they turn the pages of a book, making reading literally “come alive.”

A recent study by Manatt Digital Media suggests that A.R. will generate $120 billion in revenue by the year 2020. Could A.R. headsets one day become as indispensable and ubiquitous as smartphones? The technology may only be in its infancy, and the challenges are admittedly many. Google Glass turned out to be a bust, but that hardly spells doom for the holy-grail concept of a head-worn computer. Microsoft’s HoloLens headset made an impressive debut earlier this year, and others have offered prototypes. The space race is on! With big players like Google, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon investing millions in development, one gets the sense that it’s just a matter of time before one or more of them figures it out– opening the door for a new age of killer A.R. apps and content.

If perceptive software developers and companies are not already gearing up for it– maybe they should be.

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