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Page last updated at 08:44 GMT, Saturday, 25 June 2011 09:44 UK

The promise of augmented reality: Gaga in a living room

By Alex Hudson
BBC News


Spencer Kelly looks at the future of AR and photo-realistic modelling

Augmented reality has been touted as the "next big thing" for a while, yet mainstream success has proved elusive. So what can be done to turn it from a gimmick into a commercial necessity?

Imagine being able to watch miniature versions of Kings of Leon or Lady Gaga play on a table right in front of your eyes.

This is augmented reality (AR) in action.

Integrating computer-generated images and the real world has been made possible by the ever-increasing power of small computing devices, which can now render realistic 3D figures in real-time.

In its most simple terms, augmented reality is placing digital information over real-world environments
Currently, screens are required to view the information and act as a looking glass onto the scene you are observing
AR must work when looking from any direction - it can be viewed in either 2D or 3D
The most commonly-seen example of this technology is in displays for fighter pilots and in sports broadcasting

One company - String, in partnership with tech firm Digicave - has developed and demonstrated a system that creates the impression of a 3D figure mapped onto, for example, a book shelf. Such technology opens up the possibility of having a pop star appear in your bedroom, performing as if they were on-stage.

"I think what we're delivering here is a unique experience that no-one has ever seen before," says String's CEO Alan Maxwell.

"For example, we can capture a live performance from an artist on stage… and deliver that performance to people's devices wherever they are in the world and they simply have to hold their device at a marker. I think there is a certain amount of value in that."

The idea of augmented reality was first mooted as far back as in 1965, with Ivan Sutherland's now famous essay Augmented Reality: The Ultimate Display. In it, he said that "with appropriate programming… a display could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked," stating that digital handcuffs would be able to actually restrain users, and those shot by digital characters would be killed in real life.

His vision bears uncanny resemblance to the Matrix, although it is far from the world of AR that we currently inhabit.

Nearly 50 years after that prophetic work, computers have advanced beyond comprehension. However, commercial developments in AR have been slow and the buzz that surrounded the technology a couple of years ago seems to be waning.

That is perhaps because, up until now, the products and software available to most people have been gimmicky, fun applications rather than - as much of the industry thought - lifestyle must-haves.

Rory Cellan-Jones
Augmented reality is a vision of a future where images, not words, become the building blocks by which we search the world and understand our surroundings
Rory Cellan-Jones, technology correspondent

Even in marketing, the first AR advert was seen in 2007 but the message seemed to be lost on most people until relatively recently, when models dressed up as angels seemed to magically appear alongside passengers at a London train station.

But while AR failed to captured the popular imagination, the technology was being extensively used in commercial environments.

"Fighter pilots are a classic example," says Dan Sung, editor of features at tech site Pocket Lint.

"The technology [of using a heads-up display] has been there since Top Gun. It's really useful and the reason we don't talk about it is because it's so good no one even notices it's augmented reality."

The heads-up display can now be used by cyclists and snowboarders alike, and in sports where looking unconventional is seen as often appealing, bulky goggles may not be a problem.

Sports programming is also a large user and developer of graphics that interact and rely on real-world reference points. A game of cricket or American football - for example - would now look strange without the use of some form of AR technology.

Then there is the possibility of using augmented reality to "add value" to the real world. Technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones has looked at some firms that are developing AR as a marketing tool .

LYNX advert
A number of marketing companies have used AR to promote products

Yet it all seems rather limited compared to the vision of AR painted by future-gazing technology evangelists.

What makes AR's slow progress all the more apparent is the way that sci-fi series and Hollywood have taken to the idea like a 3D duck to pixelated water. From the holo-deck in Star Trek to - perhaps more realistically - the virtual reality simulations in a recent James Bond film, examples are all around.

Sony recently announced its "SmartAR" project, which seems to have solved many of the problems which critics have previously used to discredit the technology - that it is too slow and does not react well to the unsteady devices it is used on.

But it is the start-ups and smaller enterprises that many see as making the big breakthroughs.

One thing that developers are looking to get rid of as quickly as possible is the need to use tablet or mobile devices to see the extra images.

"Ultimately, what we really want is glasses for this kind of thing because there is the problem of swinging a phone around in front of your face," says Sung.

"But a good working pair which doesn't look as though you're trying to assimilate people that people will actually wear is still at least five years away."

The barrier of a screen between the user and the action is seen by many as a problem and, until that changes, critics say that this technology will struggle to engage people.

Man playing guitar
Photo-realism is seen by many as the next big thing in augmented reality

But when solved, the effects could be magical.

"Imagine shooting zombies coming out of the ground while wearing glasses, it's pretty incredible," says Maxwell.

And away from gaming, rather than just videos and extra information, imagine walking round Trafalgar Square with a 3D depiction of Admiral Nelson you could ask questions to, or watching dramas that take place in specific locations with characters interacting with their surroundings in real-time.

"We need the whole world as a 3D reference," says Jan Schlink from AR firm Metaio.

"In 10 to 15 years, I really think you will be able to walk around the city and have it all augmented. There are already 3D map providers and you could use these and create a model so that entire cities could be referenced."

But perhaps the real challenge will be making the digital and real worlds combine and work together as if it had always been that way. As is often the way with technology, it has only been truly integrated with mass society if no-one notices it.

"What happens in 20 years, that's the ultimate test," says Sung.

"When augmented reality has made it, no-one will talk about it anymore. It will just be there."

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