I have deep feelings with regards to the term Augmented Reality. And the notion that it might be getting short-changed as a conceptual paradigm disturbs me deeply. Suffice it to say that I first heard the words uttered 15 years ago by Thad Starner at the MIT Media Lab. Steve Mann passed by in the background, which was good enough for me. They were waiting on the arrival of the first Virtual Boys, eager to tear into them in the hope of extracting a personal laser display.
Augmented Reality: It’s not too soon.
I just came upon this post by Robert A. Rice, Jr., author of a book on MMOs, in which he posits that it is simply too soon to be mainstreaming Augmented Reality. Mr. Rice points to this past Sunday’s G.E. Superbowl commercial, featuring their fiducial marker-tracking AR marketing campaign for Smart Grid.
The concern here is that AR, as a broad conceptual paradigm, is at risk of being pigeonholed in the same way that Virtual Reality was in the nineties. This would be the result of AR, as a term, finding a mainstream usage defined by marker tracking. Well, frankly, I don’t think that will happen. There is a vibrant global research and development community that is well into the later stages of AR research encompassing algorithms for markerless feature-tracking, occlusion simulation, stereoscopic depth-mapping, etc. Likewise for inertial interfaces.
True consumer AR applications are close at hand, as is the hardware for us to take advantage of this paradigm, which is only just emerging into the mainstream. To date, the best example of mainstream AR that I can point to is Wikitude, which makes no use of marker tracking or image analysis whatsoever.
In my next post I’ll clarify what Augmented Reality implies to me, and what fusion of technologies will be necessary for its realization. I’ll touch on some of the companies to be watching, for those who haven’t been following the field closely. I’ll also make a brief mention of the presence of location-aware Augmented Reality, termed “locative art” in this literary manifestation, in Gibson’s 2007 novel Spook Country. (It’s a less-than-ideal implementation, but is accurately indicative, I think, of the avant-garde channels through which AR will work its way into the fabric of technological societies.)
For the moment, let me just say that Mr. Rice predicts a co-opting and overhyping of Augmented Reality as there was with Virtual Reality. While I share some of his anxieties, I think the truth is that Augmented Reality exists on the same spectrum as Virtual Reality, and is an extension of the same, and that the the evolution of technology has been such that things will play out differently this time. The degree to which AR can blossom to its full paradigm-shifting potential is dependent on the human interface, geolocative, visual analysis, microdisplay, inertial sensor, wireless connection, portable/pocket computing, relational database, and cloud computing technologies that have matured very rapidly in this first decade of the 21st. We weren’t ready for real VR, but we’re about ready for real AR. It’s a broad concept, and the marker-tracking folks are a big part of it, but they can’t have it to themselves because we won’t let them.
It isn’t too soon. Go with it.