Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Augmented Reality

I know I'm going to have to rewrite this column completely in as little as six months, but that's fine.  Augmented reality is so fantastic, so impressive, so useful, that I won't mind exploring it again in a short while.  What is augmented reality?  Remember the Terminator?  He could see data superimposed on top of an image, such as car model, a person's weight and height, even their name.  How cool is that?   The Terminator was released in 1985, and I'm happy to say that augmented reality --Terminator vision-- is available to all of us on our cell phones.  (Take a peek at the world through the Terminator's eyes here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MeaaCwBW28.)

Today's augmented reality does even more than the Terminator could conjure.   The Terminator might be able to tell if a particular person is a friend or foe by comparing the image of that person to what is in its database.  But with an augmented reality app for the iPhone, like Yelp, you can tell if a particular restaurant you're looking at has received good or bad reviews, even if you're too far away to read the restaurant's name.   (I presume that since the Terminator didn't need to eat, "restaurant vision" wasn't built into him.)

This is how augmented reality works in its simplest form, using the Yelp application as an example:  Point your cell phone at something.  Press the Monocle button, which starts the augmented reality component.  If  Yelp "sees" a restaurant where your camera is pointing, it will display text information superimposed on what you see through the phone.  Move your phone in another direction and new restaurants pop up.  If you spot something potentially delicious, click on that label and a review pops up.  Here's what Monocle looks like:

One evening I was lying in bed playing with my iPhone and turned on Monocle.  To my surprise, the iPhone "saw" through the walls of our house, and superimposed the names of the restaurants I was aiming the phone at, about a quarter of a mile away.  Excellent -- the iPhone has x-ray vision!

Augmented reality applications for smart phones phones make use of the phone's GPS, compass and accelerometer to figure out what the phone is looking at.

Yelp is just one of a growing number of augmented reality applications.  Cyclops, Bionic Eye, Urbanspoon and Robotvision are other augmented reality apps that add data to what the phone sees.

Augmented reality isn't limited to terrestrial pursuits.  With the iPhone app SkyVoyager, you can point you camera at the night sky and see the planets and stars superimposed on the screen.  As you move your phone, the objects in your phone's screen also shift. Tap on an object to get more information about that star or planet. Wondering if that bright object is Mars, Venus or an alien spacecraft on final approach to earth?  Wonder no more. 

For skiers, climbers, hikers, adventurers -- there's an app for you, too.  Curious about what that mountain that is?  Fire up the augmented reality application, Peaks, and it will reveal everything about what you're looking at.

Perhaps the most powerful augmented reality app currently available for the iPhone is Layar, which lets developers create their own augmented reality apps on the Layar platform:  This single app can have a multitude of augmented reality displays.  Using Layar you can point your phone anywhere and see restaurants, nearby Tweeps, and hotels.  You can also visualize where the government is spending recovery dollars -- if a building or building's occupant has received taxpayer dollars.  You can find apartments for rent just by aiming your phone at a building (how great is that!)  And more.

Retina is an augmented reality application for color-blind people.  The app displays the actual name of the color:

Dishpointer is an app that shows you what satellites are where in the sky.  It's fun, but also handy if you want to align your satellite TV dish.  Perhaps the most useful (sort of) augmented reality app is Car Finder, which, as you probably suspect, lets you zero in on where you parked your car.  Okay, yes you could write down your car's location on a piece of paper, but now you have an excuse never to tote a heavy, bulky pen around:

Augmented reality is still in its early stages.  But what's coming next to cell phones will blow your mind.  Imagine visiting Athens, New York City, or Washington, DC.  Point you phone that-a-way, and it will display what the city looked like 100, 500, or 2,000 years ago.  As you move your phone, the image will change, showing you exactly what was there.  Now that's an amazing way to look at history.  Or before you leave your house for work, you point your iPhone or Android phone or Blackberry in the direction of your office and instantly see where traffic is backed up.  (And of course, you can add a weather layer to show you what the weather will be by the time you get to the office.)  By moving your finger you can plot out an alternate route.  Before you leave for home from the office, you repeat the same process, only this time you tell your phone to display take out restaurants along the low-traffic route back.   If the Terminator doesn't need to cook, neither do you.