You might think augmented reality is the way of the future, but really, it has its roots in the 20th century. Morton Heilig, the “Father of Virtual Reality,” patented the Sensorama Stimulator, which he called an “experience theater,” on Aug. 28, 1962. Over time, the idea of using technology to create a layer over the real world has been honed and refined and put in our palms, thanks to the proliferation of smartphones.
Confused about what augmented reality is? In short, it’s a way to use technology to redefine space, and it places a virtual layer over the world with geographic specificity ensuring a good fit. Check out the video below — in real life, the woman is holding what appears to be a simple box of LEGOs. But when seen through an AR viewer, the box comes to life, serving as a platform for a beautiful carousel. It’s not that you’re imagining things — AR uses computer animation to bring objects to life.
While mainstream examples of AR have been, to date, on the fluffy side (like this and this), the technology has promise as an urban utility. Trak Lord of Metaio, an AR company based in Germany, says his company is researching how augmented reality can be used in urban environments. Cities present a challenge to the technology, since buildings and shops are so close together and GPS isn’t yet accurate enough to distinguish among them. But Metaio developed a proprietary algorithm that works with GPS, Continuous Visual Search (CVS) and Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) to “snap” AR layers into place with impressive accuracy.
“It’s not a futuristic, fringy thing,” says Goldrun founder Vivian Rosenthal. “I think we’re there.”
Improvements to the technology means more promise for AR — and 2.5 billion AR apps are expected to be downloaded by 2017. But if you’re wondering how you’ll actually use AR, we’ve outlined seven real ways in which you, city dwellers across the globe, might soon use this bleeding-edge technology. AR has great potential to transform our cities and the way we learn and discover within them.
1. Urban Exploration
In a new neighborhood or exploring another city? Ditch the Fodor’s and grab an AR app that shows you what’s nearby and where you should go. These AR apps let you filter by category so you can find exactly what you’re looking for, whether it’s a coffee shop, restaurant or museum. And you won’t need to worry about getting turned around by the map — the AR app will adapt based on what you’re facing, so it’ll tell you to turn right and get you to your destination, as opposed to just indicating that you should walk northeast (how are you supposed to know which way is northeast?). This kind of AR app already exists — check out Nokia’s City Lens, Wikitude and Metaio’s Junaio and there are more to come.
Lord explained another fun use of AR beyond helping you get around. In Munich, for example, the clock known as Glockenspiel chimes at 11 a.m., and little characters act out “scenes.” But what if you’re not there at 11 a.m.? Metaio created an overlay of the animation of the routine so that you can “see” the animation when you hold your smartphone up to the Glockenspiel, in effect letting you experience the moment any time of day. This technology could be applied for other time-sensitive events at landmarks, such as the Changing of the Guards or the illumination of the Eiffel Tower during the holidays, for instance.
And another fun way to explore your city — or any city — is to overlay 3D maps that show what the city looked like at any point in history. If you’re walking down Broadway, you would be able to “see” horse-drawn carriages parked on the street in front of old parlors similar idea would be to overlay what your city used to look like on top of the current layout. If you live in New York, you could walk around downtown and your phone would geolocate your positioning and put a virtual layer on top of the street, letting you “see” the wall after which Wall Street is named, carriages parked on the street and the cobbler shop on the corner. It’d be like walking in a history book.
Visiting a museum? Metaio did an integration with the British Museum where there were AR hot spots that offered more information, and the Junaio AR browser basically “attaches” information to the art so you don’t need to buy one of those audio tours. Especially in the case of modern art, says Lord, “You could walk up to nearly any painting in any museum and the [AR] recognition will work on it,” using LLA (Longitude, Latitude, Altitude) to navigate indoors.
Metaio also experimented with 3D virtual “docents,” who are placed throughout the museum — but only visible through the browser — and can tell you more about the art in nearby exhibits. Lord explains that this is a helpful tool, especially when you’re in a large museum, like the Louvre or New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where maps don’t always help you find what you’re looking for.
Augmented reality lets you browse a virtual catalog of clothes from your favorite brands, shop directly within your Esquire magazine, or head to a virtual pop-up store and avoid the lines.
Augmented reality is going to radically change the shape of commerce, says Rosenthal of Goldrun, who created an AR pop-up shop for Airwalk in a New York City park. AR could turn places as mundane as parks and airports into shopping destinations, which would be a great way to kill time (and a smart way for businesses to save money on commercial real estate). If there’s no UNIQLO or Crate & Barrel in your city, AR could change that, and you could browse the stores virtually, using your phone. Think of it as v-commerce, as opposed to ecommerce.
But even brick-and-mortar locations could integrate augmented reality into their design. They could show you items that will be on shelves soon, or items that aren’t sold at that location — and soon you’ll even be able to feel these items through your phone. And have you ever thought about how much storefront designs costs and that they’re simply thrown out after? AR could spice up window displays and cut costs if ornate tangible displays are instead be presented digitally. (This, of course, won’t happen until AR reaches critical mass among a mainstream audience.)
4. Travel and History
If you’re looking for budget “travel” options or a quick “getaway,” you could find a solution in augmented reality. Just plop the Eiffel Tower or the Leaning Tower of Pisa right in your backyard and unlock monuments during a sort of virtual vacation, and you could learn tidbits about each one as you go. It’d be a great way to teach your kids, too — “You could have your kid pose with each monument and basically take a ‘trip around the world,’” says Rosenthal.
Using AR in this way would be great at home and in classrooms, where history teachers could take students on a “class trip” to the Great Wall of China and even pose for a picture, making education deeply personal and thus, more memorable. This, of course, is different from the AR uses mentioned in #1, since you wouldn’t need to be physically in front of the monuments to see them with AR.
5. Customer Service
No one likes having to call customer service — you’ll be put on hold and stuck listening to a script recited by a rep. But in the future, if you’re having trouble setting up Apple TV, or your cable cuts off, you can have customer service come to you.
Metaio’s AR software can access the user’s camera (Lord assures us it’s not as creepy as it sounds), so if you’re setting up technology at home and having problems, the support team can access the camera and in real-time, overlay instructions through the camera. So instead of hearing generic instructions, like “Unplug the red cord” and “double-check the port,” someone could walk you through the process and see the things you’re seeing, enabling the customer service rep to point things out in more detailed, visual way and helping problems get solved in a more efficient manner.
6. Safety and Rescue Operations
Chris Grayson, an AR expert, says, “The enterprise space and government employees could see the first real-world benefits” of AR. Emergencies are a fact of life, and first responders, police and firefighters often arrive at chaotic scenes and need to make sense of the environment and navigate a place they’ve never been. Wouldn’t it be cool if they could see a virtual map of the site or have “X-ray vision” to see underground water and power lines?
7. Moving & Decorating Your Home
Maybe this is only a problem in Manhattan, where we live in shoeboxes, but AR has fun and useful applications when it comes to moving day. There’s no worse feeling than buying furniture, paying the delivery fee, having someone schlep it up five flights of stairs, only to have it a) not fit through the doorway or b) look like a Gulliver-sized sofa in a lilliputian living room. What if you searched through an app and pulled up the Macy’s bedframe, IKEA dresser (IKEA has already experimented with AR) and Jennifer Convertibles sofabed through an app and virtually positioned them in your home so you could see what they’d look like — and whether they would actually fit — before you head to the store and pay?
“Augmented reality isn’t the absolute solution to [moving problems], but it’s a start, making that pain point a little bit easier,” says Lord.
And once you’re all moved in, you’d surely want to decorate. Is there a painting or sculpture you’ve been eyeing, but you’re not sure if it would fit, dimensionally or aesthetically? You could preview it with an AR app. “Augmented reality brings a whole new way to think about the transportation of physical goods — you can preview them as social goods,” says Rosenthal, who recently launched The Artwall to help people preview art before buying.