Fused Realities

By Colin Shively

Imagine if people were able to simply look through sunglasses at a building and see digital information about the building displayed from any given Internet search engine, or see local ratings on nearby restaurants. Soon, they will be able to do just that with a technology called Augmented Reality.

Augmented Reality, or AR, is a term used to describe the physical world merged with digital information that is stored on computer servers. The two create a mixed reality that is interactive and informative to the user. A commonly known use of Augumented Reality is the yellow “first down” line displayed on television screens during football games. Despite the line not physically being there, it exists digitally to display information.

Until recently, Augmented Reality had been highly limited to computers equipped with specific tools and functions. In the past, Augumented Reality had only been used by the military in “heads up” displays in the cockpits of fighter jets, said Tom Dowd, assistant professor for Interactive Arts and Media at Columbia.

Recently, however, Augumented Reality has been integrated into systems that are used in cars to display information such as road conditions and the distance it takes to stop the automobile. With the evolution of mobile technology, individual users have the ability to augment their own world.

The mixed reality can be used by anyone who wants to gather information in a new and interesting way. The word augment literally means “to make larger,” and that is what a user is doing; they are adding to their own reality and making it bigger, filled withmore knowledge.

“For example, imagine if your car’s windscreen display could help guide you to an open parking spot, or if you were in a ballpark and could use your camera to image the field and the Augumented Reality system automatically displays who each player is, what the batter’s [earned run average] is or any other kind of statistic,” Dowd said.

The Interactive Arts & Media Department teaches a class about Augmented Reality, but the class itself is still being developed because the technology needed to research Augumented Reality is not readily available, Dowd said. In the future, he said Interactive Arts & Media hopes to integrate Augmented Reality into their personal computer and mobile phone development classes.

Other colleges, however, have programs and institutions that have been researching Augmented Reality long before Augumented Reality became popular.

Blair MacIntyre, an associate professor at the College of Computing at Georgia Tech, began experimenting with Augmented Reality when he became the director of the Augmented Environments Lab at Georgia Tech in 1998.

The lab researches different methods of blending digital and physical information, such as video games, mobile applications and even with the U.S. military. Their most recent work is a program called Mirror World, which MacIntyre described as “Google Earth meets Second Life.”

“In layman’s terms, Mirror World is a new environment that allows users to interact with each other virtually and physically when they are in the same area,” MacIntyre said.

Users log in using either their computer or mobile phone and by using tracking technology, they are able to virtually see who and what is around them. Other individuals are displayed as avatars, which are digital representations of a person. They can display and view social networking information, such as Facebook and Twitter updates and profile information.

MacIntyre said that Augmented Reality could be an evolution of virtual reality, where instead of an entire new world created with digital information, it is a new environment formed with the fusion of digital and physical elements.

However, there are limitations to what any form of technology can do, as well as privacy concerns when it comes to online information.

“Let’s say that Layar [an Augmented Reality mobile application] becomes popular and everyone is trying to view the information at once,” MacIntyre said. “Because Layar uses their own servers, the information would create a bottleneck and the server would crash. No one has quite figured out how to create a way of making the information flow uninterrupted quite yet.”

Another limitation MacIntyre noted was that not everyone has access to the technology required to create the new reality. In the sense of mobile phones, only devices that are equipped with a digital compass, camera and GPS are able to utilize Augmented Reality applications. Phones that are equipped with Google’s Android operating system and Apple’s 3GS are capable of the mixed reality, yet more simplistic phones do not have the hardware or processing power to handle Augmented Reality.

“I think conceptually it is incredibly interesting, but I also think it has the danger of becoming a novelty,” Dowd said. “However Augumented Reality is used, if it is to be used successfully, it has to contribute to the experience in a meaningful way, and not just be eye candy or icing. I think the right application has the potential to really show off Augumented Reality, but I think it will be hard to find that right [application].”

In the digital age, where almost any information can be found with a simple search, privacy concerns have been raised about what individuals should post online and make public knowledge. Some Augmented Reality applications have the potential to utilize social networking sites to digitally locate other users around them, allowing their profile information to be displayed on the Augumented Reality application at a given point in a map.

“Privacy issues are a good point to make when it comes to Augmented Reality,” said Philipp Breuss-Schneeweis, co-creator of the Augmented Reality application Wikitude. “With applications like Wikitude, all the information about buildings and sites are public information so there isn’t a security concern. But when it comes to social networking sites giving access to Augumented Reality [applications], there is a certain level of hesitation.”

MacIntyre said that when it comes to social sites, users have the option of securing their profiles from public view. If they knowingly do not protect it, then applications have full right of displaying the information.

“If someone posted a Tweet stating they are in a park, and another person in the same area used an Augmented Reality application to view Tweets around them, there is usually so much information it would be difficult to narrow down a single one,” MacIntyre said. “It is privacy through obscurity. Despite that, caution is always urged.”

Programs that utilize Augmented Reality are only beginning to grasp the potential of integrated realities, MacIntyre said. In the future, it is possible and conceivable that Augmented Reality can be used in the form of holograms, much like the ones commonly seen on “Star Trek” and “Star Wars.”

“We are only beginning to realize what we can do with an augmented environment,” MacIntyre said. “One day we could be wearing sunglasses that give us live news stories based on the direction we are looking, or see a 3-D map of where we are driving—the possibilities are endless.”