Augmented reality, long a staple of science fiction, is here, there and everywhere. A search on Google News brings up nearly 700 recent stories about the technology and the companies that claim to offer it.
In a nutshell, augmented reality is the addition of computer-generated content to our field of vision that tells us more about what we see.
At some point in the future, we can expect car windshields, scuba masks, even eyeglasses to feed us information about what we see.
For example, a windshield augmented-reality system might recognize buildings and identify them for us on the windshield itself, along with turn-by-turn directions, information from road signs and warnings about dangers ahead. Eyeglasses might use a hidden camera on the inside of our glasses, visible only to us, to identify people and tell us their names and when we last met them.
Remember "Terminator vision"? The Terminator movies showed us the world from Arnold Schwarzenegger's robot perspective. Vehicles, people and objects were instantly identified right in the field of view. There was analysis, too: The robot calculated probabilities, such as threats and casualties, in real time and displayed that information over what he was looking at.
Someday we'll all be able to do something like that. In the meantime, augmented reality is a solution in search of a problem.
A start-up called Atomic Greetings offers "augmented reality greeting cards." You design your own card and upload a video to go with it. The company sends the paper card by mail. When the recipient holds it up to a PC webcam, your video appears to pop out of the card. But only on-screen.
Olympus is promoting its PEN E-PL1 camera with augmented reality. By holding a special card up to a webcam, a computer-generated version of the camera appears on-screen. There is no apparent benefit to the gimmick, other than to show you how awesome you'll look holding the camera.
An interactive advertising and marketing agency called Zugara offers a wide variety of augmented reality promotions to clients, many of which involve showing things on people's webcams that aren't really there. The best of the lot is an application that simulates the trying-on of clothing for online stores. Buttons float in space around the user. By passing a hand through one of them, the user activates the button (for functions like cycling through styles, colors and so on).
BMW markets its Z4 model with augmented reality. You print out a special symbol. When you point your webcam at the printout, the car magically appears on it. You can then grow or shrink the car on-screen and drive it around on your desk. Toyota and Audi are running similar promotions.
One of the earliest commercially available augmented reality tricks comes from the baseball trading card company Topps, starting about a year and a half ago. Topps 3D Live baseball cards show a 3-D version of each card's player when held up to a webcam.
A magazine called Time Out New York Kids published a recent cover that used augmented reality. By pointing your phone at the cover (which showed a picture of a fifth-grade chorus), you could see a video screen rising from the magazine that showed the kids singing.
These applications of augmented reality seem cool at first but smack of novelty. And novelty wears off. These marketing campaigns have consumers jumping through hoops to see a pointless video that attaches something that isn't there to something that is. I can see a minority of consumers doing it once -- maybe twice. But after that, they'll quickly grow tired of it.
The bigger problem with these examples is that they don't augment reality. They augment marketing and media.
In reality, augmenting is useful
The larger vision for augmented reality involves both usefulness and the augmentation of the real world, not the artificial worlds of marketing and media.
A company called Shotzoom Software recently launched a $20 iPhone 4 app called Golfscape, which uses the phone's built-in gyroscope to show you distances by pointing your iPhone 4 at, say, the hole you're shooting for. This mirrors the augmented reality used on sports TV, where the line of scrimmage in football or, say, the world-record pace in swimming is represented in real time on the screen during the competition. It combines the field of play with data about the objectives of the player.
Smartphone apps offer a limited kind of augmented reality -- really a simulation of augmented reality -- based on location plus direction, as detected by a smartphone's GPS, compass, accelerometer and, if present, gyroscope.
But without object recognition, this really isn't augmented reality, and it's not likely to be embraced by the general smartphone-using public.
Acrossair builds custom iPhone apps, including one called the Acrossair browser. A bar guide helps you find the location of bars. It shows "signs" hanging in midair as you look around, using the location of the virtual sign as an indication of the direction of the watering hole. Its Carfinder function lets you use GPS to set the location of your car. To find it later, you bring up the app and see the direction and distance on-screen. (Try not to combine the drinking with the driving. There's no way to augment your way out of the reality of a DUI arrest.) The company has other apps, too. A Twitter app shows tweets on virtual notes hanging in space indicating the direction of the person who tweeted it.
Other, similar apps include the Wikitude World Browser, Robot Vision and Layar. To use these apps, you hold up your phone with the application running, and it shows the camera view with coffee shops, museums or whatever hovering in space in more or less the direction they lie in.
The most advanced of these is the Wikitude browser. Unlike the direction-only apps, Wikitude identifies the building, then attaches the note to it. It's impressive technology, but but it's being used in a way that degrades the experience. Because you're not holding the camera still, and because the note is attached to the building in the video, the thing you're trying to read is jumping all over the screen. Will somebody explain the point of doing that?
In fact, what's the point of any of these apps? When you want to see the direction of a coffee shop, there's no advantage to showing the camera view. Awkwardly holding the camera and pivoting 360 degrees to find a Starbucks (which ultimately links you to the Google Maps directions anyway) isn't better than just typing "coffee" into Google Maps directly.
The augmented reality idea has been prematurely co-opted to create impressive but ultimately inferior interfaces to the viewing data that we already have access to. But that's not what augmented reality is for.
These apps aren't so much augmenting reality as they are identifying the direction of things, and adding that direction information on top of the camera view.
They don't tell you what's there. They tell you what's supposed to be there, based on the most recent database. If the object isn't permanent or correctly entered into the right database, it won't be augmented.
In other words, without object identification, augmented reality isn't really augmented reality. By layering geo-tagged data on top of a live camera feed, we're getting the look and feel of augmented reality without the ultimate benefit, which is to be able to enhance our view of the world with information about what we're looking at, regardless of location.
Augmented reality will become life-changing when it can be combined with object recognition and face recognition.
What's important to note, however, is that all of the current technologies will be useful for real augmented reality when we can get the recognition problem solved. For example, the use of location plus direction will be used to narrow down the possibilities of objects to be recognized.
Intel, for example, is working on a system for recognizing buildings by comparing the picture you take with your camera phone against a database of photos. It's actually using pattern recognition. The secret is that it only considers photos of objects near your location, as reported by your camera's GPS.
Intel's technology isn't much (and it's not available), but it's a start. In fact, hundreds of companies and universities are working on the problems that, once solved, will bring Terminator-like augmented reality to all of us. The augmented reality of the future will bring all this data to bear -- location, direction, special patterns, and pattern and facial recognition -- and combine it with innovative heads-up display technology.
Augmented reality seems to be everywhere these days. And yet it's nowhere. So enjoy these new marketing gimmicks and geolocation-based applications. But also understand that although they're called augmented reality, the real thing isn't quite a reality -- yet.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter Twitter @mike_elgan or his blog, The Raw Feed.