SURF THIS: Footnoting life: New programs augment reality

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Jim Cota

There’s a new wave rolling across the sea of technology that could alter the way we interact with the world around us. It’s called augmented reality, and essentially, it’s the melding of our physical world with digital information.

Sound a little science fiction-y? Let’s try a couple of examples to help clarify.

Bionic Eye (www.bionic-eye.com) is an iPhone 3GS application that overlays floating representations of New York City (and Chicago and Washington, D.C.) subway stations onto the live video coming through the camera. So imagine you’re traveling in New York, standing on the corner of Broadway & 62nd, and wondering how to find the nearest subway station. Simply open the application and point your phone down the street. The application uses the built-in compass and GPS to determine your location and which way you’re facing to display signs on the screen pointing to the nearest station. Aim the phone straight down at the ground and you can see where the actual lines are running, color-coded to match their routes. The application will also show other points of interest, hotels and some restaurants.

Another example: Yelp! (www.yelp.com) is an online tool dedicated to providing ratings and reviews for businesses of all types, written by patrons. Logically, Yelp! has an iPhone application as well, allowing you to find the ratings and reviews of restaurants near your current location. Sound like a dozen other sites? Well, Yelp! has recently updated the application to include a mode called Monocle, which accesses the phone’s video camera and superimposes small signs over the video showing all the restaurants around you, including their star rating and reviews. Simply stand on the corner of an unfamiliar town, spin in a circle, and know which of the places to eat is most highly rated.

One more: Trulia (www.trulia.com) is a homebuyer tool that lists properties for sale, competitive pricing analysis, neighborhood maps, etc., all in one place. It has released an application for the new Android smartphone that allows you to point your phone down the street (or from a nearby rooftop) to instantly see all the listings overlaid on the video screen. You can also access the detailed listings and connect directly with the appropriate real estate agents.

But augmented reality isn’t limited to your phone. There are companies that specialize in bringing this type of interaction to products, movies and more. Total Immersion is generally considered the industry leader at this point. It has made action figures to be co-marketed with the movie “Avatar” and 3-D baseball cards created for Topps. 

The cards are intended to serve more as a proof of concept than a marketing home run: After you open the pack, you log onto the Web site (www.toppstown.com), and hold the card up to your Web cam. The system recognizes the card and superimposes a three-dimensional baseball player on top of the card. (It looks like he’s standing on the card itself.) Put the card on top of your desk and you can use the keyboard to control the 3-D avatar to ‘play’ his respective position. Pitchers pitch, hitters hit, outfielders catch fly balls.

In the most recent edition of Wired magazine, the letter from Publisher Howard Mittman spoke briefly about a change that was taking place within the magazine. The ads, Mittman said, would be adopting a bit of augmented reality. By downloading an iPhone application called kooaba, you could use the phone’s camera to snap pictures of advertisements in the magazine. The kooaba servers then read the image and respond with more detail than was available in the print format. Mittman said, “You’ll discover some great stuff from our advertising partners throughout the issue, including access to premium content, Web extras, special deals and giveaways.”

Lest you think this is all just an advertising gimmick (well, at this point, most of these applications are some form of marketing), consider Babak Parviz, a bio-nanotechnologist at the University of Washington. Parviz has been working on augmented-reality contact lenses that would layer computer graphics on everything around us.

“We have a vast amount of data on the Web, but we see it on a flat screen,” said Michael Zöllner, an augmented-reality researcher at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics Research. “It’s only a small step to see all of it superimposed on our lives.”

I’m not sure any of us are ready for that, but there are certainly applications—like a few of the examples above—where it makes a great deal of sense. The Web, and the ability to access information on our smart phones nearly any time and any place, has already had a dramatic impact on the distribution of information.

Augmented reality is the next logical step in that progression.•


Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.


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