Augmented reality gets a boost from wave of new apps

Technology is turning your handheld device into an information source on everything from subway systems to the stars

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      Wanting to showcase augmented-reality technology during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Yahoo worked with two companies, Total Immersion and Helios Interactive Technologies, to build a cutting-edge display for its FanCouver pavilion in Yaletown. Using a live video feed, the display allowed visitors to virtually model cartoonish hats and sunglasses on a large screen.

      “It’s a new kind of magical display where you want to interact with it, and that’s kind of what augmented reality is able to offer on this kind of display,” Bruno Uzzan, cofounder and CEO of Total Immersion, told the Georgia Straight by phone from his office in Los Angeles.

      Established in 1999, Total Immersion specializes in the development of augmented-reality applications. While “virtual reality” refers to computer-simulated environments, “augmented reality” involves a live view of the real world overlaid with computer-generated information or imagery.

      While this technology has been around since at least the 1990s, over the past two years, augmented-reality applications have become more common, thanks to the release of smartphones such as Apple’s iPhone 3GS and various Android handsets, as well as more powerful home computers.

      After a decade in the field, Uzzan is still excited by the potential uses of augmented reality. He pointed out that Total Immersion’s recent projects have included promotions for McDonald’s and Coca-Cola related to the blockbuster film Avatar.

      “The two markets that are clearly leading the race for augmented reality are marketing applications and entertainment applications,” he said.

      Freelance developer Andree Toonk, a native of the Netherlands who moved to Vancouver in 2007, formed the company Net Knowledge to create modules for Layar, a mobile augmented-reality application.

      “Layar is an augmented-reality browser, so basically it’s an app that you install on your iPhone or your Android phone,” Toonk told the Straight in a phone interview. “But then you only have the app, and it doesn’t have any content in it. So, they rely on external content developers to develop what they call a layer.”

      One of the layers Toonk has created uses information from the City of Vancouver’s open-data catalogue. It allows Layar users to locate nearby parks, libraries, and community centres by looking at the real-time video—augmented with data—displayed on their phone’s screen.

      “There’s a lot of layers out there, about 500 now, and some of them are really cool and useful, and some of them are cool but they might not be that useful,” Toonk said.

      One useful app is Pocket Universe. John Kennedy—a software developer who splits his time between Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Redmond, Washington, and worked for Microsoft over most of the past decade—began developing it 10 years ago. The app, now available for the iPhone and iPad, provides information on objects in the night sky when a device is pointed at the stars. Pocket Universe was one of the first augmented-reality applications to be made widely available when Apple released the iPhone 3GS, the first version of the iPhone to support this technology.

      “Ultimately I’ve always wanted something that will help me look up at the sky and answer the question, ”˜What’s that?’ ” Kennedy told the Straight of why he created Pocket Universe.

      Kennedy explained that a mobile augmented-reality application typically needs to know the location of the device it’s running on and the direction that device is facing.

      “The hardware to achieve this has only recently started to appear in handheld devices such as phones,” Kennedy said by phone while stranded in Rome due to the recent volcanic eruptions in Iceland.

      According to him, in order to run these applications a mobile device needs a GPS receiver, an accelerometer, and an electronic compass.

      “As well as these sensors, a device must be able to render 3-D graphics quickly, and this needs a speedy CPU and usually a dedicated graphics chip,” he said. “Think of the mobile phones you were using five years ago, and you’ll realize how much they have improved in a very short time.”

      Richard Smith, a communication professor at Simon Fraser University who studies media-rich mobile devices and software platforms, foresees a bright future for augmented-reality applications. But he argues that, at least at the consumer level, augmented reality hasn’t yet reached its full potential.

      Smith pointed out that existing programs such as the London Tube app for the iPhone—which displays information about nearby subway stations and points of interest—offer “some moderate utility”.

      “Because those [apps] have to look in their own database and because their database has a limited number of things in it, I think it will be a limited-utility gimmick kind of thing,” Smith told the Straight by phone from his office.

      Nevertheless, he predicts that users will one day be able to simply point a smartphone’s camera at nearly any building or object to view overlaid data about it.

      “Whoever does this, probably Google, once you start building up images and data, it builds on itself and it just gets better and better,” Smith said. “Just the way that their crawling of the Web got better.”