Augmented reality bites

Augmented reality has had its fair share of false dawns over the years. Suspend your disbelief, says Fabrizio Polo – things are getting exciting

It’s an exciting time for augmented reality (AR). Of course, similar claims have been made about virtual and augmented reality since the 80s. Every year, someone predicts: this is the year our holodeck dreams will be realised.

The full holodeck experience is still a long way off, but the explosion of powerful, sensor-equipped mobile devices ensures the ubiquity of augmented reality is just around the corner. The surest evidence of this fact is the increasing availability of SDKs (such as the Sphero AR SDK/Unity plug-in) enabling developers to create exciting, immersive, augmented reality experiences without any special knowledge of computer vision, sensor fusion, or any of the other specialised technologies behind modern AR engines.

Why now?

There’s only one answer: the hardware. Twenty years ago, essentially every component of a mobile AR platform was prohibitively large, expensive, or technologically insufficient. Processing video in real-time requires an extraordinary amount of computational power. This brings back memories of Steve Feiner’s Touring Machine, which required the user to wear a backpack computer! As for digital cameras, accelerometers, gyroscopes and mobile displays, prices were high and quality was low. The smartphone revolution changed all that. Chances are, you have a capable AR device in your pocket.

What – really – is AR?

At a recent augmented reality conference, I was showing an elderly woman the Sphero app Sharky the Beaver. The app enables you to control Sphero (a robotic ball) from a smartphone or tablet. The display shows video coming from the back-facing camera of the device with a significant augmentation: an adorably plump, animated beaver rendered over the ball. If you look at the screen, it appears as if you’re driving a 3D cartoon character round the room.

She pointed at the screen and said, “I see the beaver here – but I don’t see it here,” pointing at the real ball sitting on the floor. “How is that augmented reality?” I had a good laugh on the inside, but it’s a great point. Augmented reality is an audacious term, undeserved almost everywhere it is applied.

To prevent this confusion, I try to use more specific language. Apps such as 13th Labs/Mojang’s Minecraft Reality should probably be called ‘augmented video’. That’s what they literally do: render virtual content into a video feed so as to deceive the user into thinking it’s real. Location-based games are often categorised as augmented reality, too. Google’s Ingress, for instance, may be more appropriately called augmented cartography. While Google Glass has yet to arrive commercially, its small, off-centre display makes it unsuitable for immersive experiences. Likely, Google Glass applications will be appropriately described as ‘annotated reality’.

You may chuckle and think I am taking this analysis too far. But soon, real and virtual sensory information will be even more mixed up than they are now. Phrases like ‘augmented reality’ will lose their edge, and it will be crucial to distinguish exactly what is being augmented. If you want a real chuckle, try imagining other senses being augmented.

Robotics and the Sphero AR SDK

How about Sharky the Beaver? One could make a compelling case that this is augmented video. Rendering a virtual character into a video stream qualifies, but I think there is more to it than that. Sphero is a robot. It can move; behave autonomously. It’s a digital device with a mechanical toehold in reality. We may not have force-field treadmills yet, but we can augment one tiny round piece of reality.

The Sphero AR Unity plug-in allows developers with a little .NET experience and no background in robotics to coordinate robot behaviour with virtual content. Practically speaking, what does this mean? In terms of gameplay, quite a lot. Ever wrecked a toy truck into a pretend building? Ever made ‘countries’ by dividing up a room with scotch tape? Ever uttered the phrase ‘the carpet is lava!’? If your childhood was as fun as mine, you’ll love what augmented reality brings in the next decade. If make-believe is an alien concept, don’t worry; we’ll bring you up to speed.