It was quite a sight in San Jose, California last month as a group of journalists, government officials, and local citizens wandered around an abandoned IBM factory site holding iPads in front of their faces. They weren’t shielding the sun from their eyes, but rather “seeing” what looked like a group of decrepit buildings come alive through the use of what has become known today as augmented reality.
The tour, organized by ZERO1 and led by Associate Professor Elliot Anderson of the University of California, Santa Cruz, was designed to tell the story of the abandoned IBM plant as a toxic waste site. As one toured the site off Cottle Road in San Jose, the iPad screen revealed historic pictures of building interiors as you walked toward them and special icons would appear which, when tapped, would activate videos featuring interviews of former IBM employees and attorneys who were involved in the long history of ground contamination on the site.
The ZERO1 tour that day is just one of a growing number of uses for augmented reality, loosely defined as a view of the real world enhanced by the use of computer generated sound, video, graphics or GPS data. Anderson admitted that his technology didn’t always work the way he wanted, and that his modest team of student programmers had struggled to build the icons and videos that would activate when a user reached a particular location. But he was absolutely convinced that this was a great way to tell an important story. “I’m trying to make it visible,” explained Anderson. “This is a big opportunity to learn.”
While the value of augmented reality may still be a work in progress as a teaching tool, its commercial value is attracting a wave of eager companies to the space. Leading the pack is (not surprisingly) Google who has filed patents using this technology for everything from wristwatches to eyeglasses. As documented in the Wall Street Journal just last month, the eyeglasses (called Google Glass) can project data on a small screen which appears above the user’s right eye. Voice activated commands lets you take pictures and send messages. It’s something akin to taking your smartphone and simply wearing it around without needing your hands to use it.
Augmented reality is also transforming how we shop. One of the most interesting uses of this technology can be found in Cachetown, a new app that was unveiled last month in Santa Clara, California at DEMO 2012. The mobile device app, created by Candy Lab, may turn out to be a marketer’s ultimate dream for brand promotion. As you walk down the street, your tablet or smartphone screen displays offers from nearby businesses using game piece icons that magically appear on screen.
This use of augmented reality to draw in consumers using a form of game playing is at the heart of Cachetown’s model. “Once we have the consumer’s attention, we have them for 30 seconds, maybe a minute at the most,” says Andrew Couch, President and CEO of Candy Lab. “Augmented reality was a necessity.”
But when Couch and his team set out to build the Cachetown app, they ran into a small problem – no one knew how to build an augmented reality platform and no one they knew could build one either. “So we hit the chalkboard,” Couch recalls. It took a year and less than $150,000 to build their new product.
As these words are written, there are quite a few developers seeking to cash in on the potential of augmented reality. There are already smartphone apps like SnapShop that lets you visualize actual furniture pieces you are thinking about buying by superimposing pictures of them in your own home. Or, if you’re concerned about criminal activity where you live or work, SpotCrime provides real-time data for crimes by location the U.S. complete with a Google Street View of where the incidents occurred.
The speed at which this new technology is moving, coupled with the growing number of people using mobile devices, may soon bring us all to a place where spinning icons outside a storefront or glasses that display images and data on command are just a normal part of our wireless life. And at that point, we might as well drop the “augmented” from this technology and just call it reality.