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Augmented Reality: Future is Here

It has been aptly described as one of the most exciting technologies around, and for good reasons too. Due to its intricate nature, many even claim it’s a technology for the future — or is it?

Well, so it seemed until phone manufacturers took their creativity one notch up and devised various applications that utilize this amazing technology on smartphones. Welcome to the remarkable world of augmented reality (AR).

AR, which involves the overlay or superimposition of digital information on top of the real world, presently has dozens of applications on the iPhone and other smartphones. By merely pointing an AR compliant phone at a real-world object, it’s possible to get needed information about the object of interest, and in real-time too!

From restaurant reviews, menus, and photos, to names of rivers, mountain heights and in-the-air plane flight itineraries, just any type of information can be dug up and displayed on the phone’s screen instantly.

Not Entirely New

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Though now becoming a buzz technology, AR is not an entirely new invention. The first AR virtual reality system was invented by Ivan Sutherland. The term “Augmented Reality” was coined by the duo of Tom Caudell and David Mizell while working for Boeing in 1992 (ISMAR).

“The concept was first suggested by Ivan Sutherland in his article ‘The ultimate display’ back in the mid 1960’s,” Dr. Blair MacIntyre, an associate professor at Georgia Tech’s college of computing, told “Folks at NASA Ames research center did some more work on the concept in the late 1980’s. Other folks started working on it in the early 1990’s, including Steve Feiner at Columbia.”

It’s been half a century since researchers haven’t looked back. AR has benefited immensely from advancements in various spheres of technology over the years and this has culminated in its present use in developing various high-tech applications. The invention of the first mobile augmented reality system (MARS) in 1997 served as a springboard for the successful integration of AR and mobile phones. Suffice to say, other groundbreaking inventions such as the camera phone (also in 1997) and the first AR browser in 2003 have all played vital roles in sustaining the growth of this technology.

Though AR applications are not restricted to mobile phones, its introduction in Google Android phones and the iPhone has become a reference point not only in revolutionizing the technology, but also in making it more popular.

Huge PossibilitiesAR

Quite unlike Sutherland’s AR system which used an optical see-through head-mounted display, present day AR apps enable users to utilize their phones as lenses through which to view happenings around them. By switching phones into camera mode, users can view a moving picture of the surrounding. Subsequently, relevant information is automatically obtained from the web and overlaid onto the picture (CNN).

In addition to location data, audio commentary, historical context, and other types of useful content can enhance a user’s experience of a place or object which can equally be added to the app.

“Most major kinds of mobile phones are capable of it. High end Android phones, like the best HTC phones, are better than iPhones (faster, better cameras, better displays) for creating AR experiences. Other high end phones, such as Linux-based phones from companies like Nokia, are also quite good,” said MacIntyre.

Of the most interesting apps at the moment is the TAT augmented ID app. Utilizing the intelligent Flickr facial recognition technology of Polar Rose, it identifies an individual’s face and instantly digs up info such as contact info from their social networking profiles on Twitter and Facebook. Merely taking an individual’s picture presents these items of information on a platter of gold.

Ditto the SREngine app. Similar to TAT, it can identify rocks, houses, monuments, malls and so on and provide relevant information on these objects the moment a picture is taken.

Yet another fascinating app is the recently launched plane finder – a dream come true for inquisitive minds. Making use of the accelerometers, compasses, gyroscopes, and GPS sensors embedded in iPhone and Android phones, it is possible to triangulate the phone’s location on the ground against the planes flying overhead in the sky – so long as data about the plane is available (CNN).

With an uncanny ability to determine a plane’s origin, destination, speed and elevation, and the actual distance of a plane from the user’s smartphone in real-time, it is undoubtedly worth the hype. So the next you someone pointing his smartphone towards the sky, don’t be surprised; he might only be trying to see where a plane is headed.

Grappling With Challenges

Considering the level of success achieved so far, many would expect stakeholders to roll out the drums in celebration. However, a lot still needs to be done in order to fully exploit the technology.

According to MacIntyre, speed and size of computers are still a problem, as is the battery life of mobile devices.

“Cell phones are getting more powerful, and are capable of doing simple AR, but even desktop computers still can’t do all the things we’d want,” he lamented, adding that network speed is equally problematic. “Beyond that, truly immersive AR experiences require head-worn displays, which are still a ways off.”

Another source of concern is the likely security implication of using this technology. According to sci-fi author Bruce Sterling, it is only a matter of time before criminals start hacking and controlling user’s view of reality. “If AR companies don’t prepare for this, they will be caught unaware and users will be turned off in a big way,” he warned (RWW).

A Peep into the Future

ARWith the conquering of smartphones, the stage seems set for AR technology to move to the next level.

Any application that requires information to be put into the world could benefit from AR. “The most obvious near-term application is games, but others include medical applications (overlaying scan information) and maintenance and repair kinds of application,” said MacIntyre.

Aware of the daunting task ahead if the dream to make AR mainstream is to be realized, researchers are not resting on their oars. Many researchers are working on it from companies to universities around the world. IT companies are developing chips, phones, and networks to make it work, while its applications in cars, medicine, weaponry, toys, and games are being experimented on.

However, we are still a long way from the kind of vision many people have of AR, where the user would be immersed in a blended world of physical and virtual content. According to MacIntyre, it will be many years till we have the experience of walking outside and seeing virtual information smoothly integrated into the world.

“I would say we have finally taken steps along the path of turning AR from a research idea into a common part of everyone’s use of computers,” he confirmed. He asserted that over the next few years, we will see a lot of rapid improvements as the technology is finally at a point where simple applications can be made. But it will be a while till we approach the science-fiction vision of AR.

This article is from Science’s archive and we’ve originally published it on an earlier date.


ISMAR Society. “History of Mobile Augmented Reality.” (2009)

Parr, Ben.  “Top 6 Augmented Reality Mobile Apps.”(2009)

Kirkpatrick, Marshall. “Augmented Reality: 5 Barriers to a Web That’s Everywhere.” (2009)

Stutter, John (CNN). “Where’s that plane going? This app knows.” (2010)

About Abdul-Lateef Balogun
Abdul-Lateef Balogun has a BS.c. in Surveying & Geoinformatics from the University of Lagos, Nigeria. He is studying his Master degree at the Department of Geoinformatics, University of Technology, Malaysia.