The World of Augmented Reality

  • We’re probably all familiar with the term “virtual reality.” It’s now a well-established concept where your view of the real world is replaced by one provided by a special goggles showing some distant reality, a panoramic view of an event, a completely computer-generated artificial reality, or a combination of these.

    Augmented reality is a rather different beast ­— it provides a contextual overlay on what you’re seeing, rather than blocking out the real world with an immersive virtual world. It’s much less mature than virtual reality but, arguably, it has the potential to have effects more far-reaching than virtual reality, to have many more applications, and to profoundly change the way we live.

    Those are the conclusions Shara Evans came to after interviewing Scott O’Brien, an augmented reality pioneer. Scott told her how he had become an instant convert to augmented reality, back in 2009. “I was helping an event called Online Retailer, and it was all about going beyond picture and price for retail experiences … It took me about 60 seconds to realise the magic of it,” he said. Within six months he had started a company to develop and exploit augmented reality.

    Scott defines augmented reality as being a “digital overlay of the real world”, the addition of information relevant to our physical surroundings. It could be information about a product you have picked off the shelf at the local supermarket, details of where to find the nearest café, or public toilet, as you are walking down the street, or — by exploiting facial recognition technology — the name and a whole lot of other information about someone you meet.

    Augmented and Virtual Realities Meet

    Another area where Scott sees huge potential is point-of-view video, which he says “can be like an augmented or virtual experience.” This is reality from multiple perspectives. It could mean enhancing your experience of any kind of spectator event — from soccer to a symphony concert — by enabling you to watch from multiple viewpoints, such as “from the helmets of the NFL or NHL players,” as Scott says. Or you could experience Madam Butterfly from the perspective of Cho-Cho-San.

    Scott says this point-of-view video represents the next phase of growth, and he identifies several startups active in this area: TriggarNextVR and Livelike.

    He says augmented reality offers a tremendous opportunity to rights holders in the sports and entertainment world to generate additional revenue: it increases our engagement, and hence our willingness to “make micro-investments in our favourite players, in our favourite pastimes.”

    What came across very strongly from my interview with Scott was the range of potential applications for augmented reality and virtual reality. This should come as no surprise: reality is what we experience every minute of every day, so in an age when so much information is in digital form and communication is ubiquitous, there should be enormous opportunity to add information to what we experience.

    Augmented Reality for Every Industry

    By the same logic, almost every industry, and every business is likely to find some application for augmented reality. Scott highlighted a few early ones that are already available, such as the Commonwealth Bank’s real estate app, which he describes as a 3D augmented reality experience.

    “You can point a smartphone to certain homes and then, in front of them, you have intelligence of their most recent sale price or what their prospective sales price would be, some new information about the seller and so on,” he said.

    Limitations to Augmented Reality will Diminish in the Near Future

    The main limiting factor for augmented reality today seems to be the technologies able to present the additional information. One of the most common “augmented reality” technologies is eyewear, ranging from the, relatively discrete, Google Glass to the decidedly dorky-looking and highly obtrusive.

    Scott acknowledges that these devices might impose some constraints on augmented reality uptake today, but he makes the point that they represent just the latest iteration in a continuum of evolving interface technologies, and says further evolution is inevitable “We are moving from desktop, laptop, cameras, through to smartphones, through to eyewear, then through to contact lenses.”

    He says current eyewear weighs in at between 200-300 grams and believes weight will no longer be an issue when they can become sub-100 grams.

    With augmented reality having such enormous potential, it’s not surprising that multinationals like Apple and HP are gearing up to be major players, acquiring innovative start-ups with relevant technologies. In the next blog I’ll take a look at what Scott had to say about some of these.

    Shara interviewed Scott O’Brien for Market Clarity's Future Tech series, where they discuss many emerging technologies. The full article is available here.