Though true artificial intelligence remains futuristic in terms of practical applications, use of computers to augment our own perception of the world is pushing more prominently into view, with commercials already suggesting ways to overlay information on what we see. With augmented reality (AR) being developed to take advantage of cloud, mobile, big data and social technology -- Gartner's "nexus of forces" -- is it possible AR could become a fifth component of the nexus?
AR is generally defined as a direct or indirect view of a real-world environment that is augmented in some way by computer generated input. This means your view of the world around you can be enhanced by external information as desired.
IN PICTURES: 10 augmented reality technologies you should know about ]
The concept itself is not really new. In fact, most people are familiar with some common uses. In football on TV, for example, the yellow first down line you see on the screen is an example of AR that has been in use for several years. However, this is not the kind of AR that promises to change the world as we know it.
AR relies on different aspects of developing technologies such as GPS, computer vision and object recognition. As such, as we see advancements in these technologies, AR stands to benefit along with them.
Mobile, cloud, big data and social tech
Intel researchers have been working on new processors for smartphones and tablets partially in anticipation of demand for AR capabilities and the power they will require. As technology makes its push into cloud computing, however, this may not even be necessary.
Google recently released the Google Goggles application, which allows users to search the Web based on an image captured using the camera in their smartphone. While this does not exactly constitute the sort of real-time AR that has the tech world talking, it does show AR can make strides toward its true potential through the cloud. As with many consumer technologies these days, mobility is the key to success. Devices supporting AR will have to be light on hardware to appeal to a mobile market, which means that the heavy lifting and storage will have to be accessed via network.
The Google Glass project -- a computer worn as glasses -- may be the general public's introduction to cloud-based AR. Consumer models of the glasses are expected to make their debut sometime in 2014. Users will wear a small headband with a clear display positioned over one eye. It will record things from your environment such as conversations and images and store them in Google's cloud. From this input, Google can provide relevant information from its search engine or Google+. [Also see: "Google Glass: A lot of hype but little information"]
However, if many people used this, the amount of data generated would be astounding. The development of big data capabilities over the next decade predicted by IT researchers will play an important role in these grand-scale AR projects as providers seek to store increasingly data-rich media from the input. On the back end, the size of the database required to provide relevant information in enough contexts for AR overlays to have mass appeal, will not be modest. Image recognition for something as simple as a company logo on the Web requires scanning through petabytes of data. Already requiring several petabytes, AR endeavors like Google Glass could quickly push storage requirements into the next few data measurement units -- exabytes, zettabytes or even yottabytes.
Google is not the only contender in AR, though. Other companies are looking at ways to integrate AR by utilizing cloud and social technology. For example, NEC Biglobe and Vuzix teamed up to develop AR glasses focused on recognizing people's faces and pairing the information up with their Facebook and Twitter accounts. AR applications in social technology like this will appeal to the masses, but businesses will also likely find interest as they increasingly utilize less public social technologies such as Salesforce's Chatter.
It may be too early to say how large a role AR will play in the next few years, but tools that can boost profits are bound for success. AR developers are certainly keeping big business in mind.
As AR develops, the most visible utilization will be in commerce. AR can facilitate a 3D view of a product traditionally advertised in 2D. Lego has already been using AR to allow people to get a preview of what is inside the boxes on shelves. Several other retailers are also looking at ways to integrate AR content into catalogues and magazines.
Retailers may also use AR to supplement what customers see in their stores with additional online options. Details and specifications for products can also be made readily available through AR.
In the office, AR could be used to increase the effectiveness of collaborative efforts by allowing teams to meet in person or virtually while viewing and manipulating a single set of data. Companies like Gravity Jack have already developed an indoor AR office. If this could be accessed via the cloud, it could potentially bring the bring your own device (BYOD) revolution to an entirely new level.
Augmented reality business cards are also becoming more common as people find it an engaging and more useful way to share business information (the amount of information you can make available this way is vastly greater). An AR business card has an image that, when read by a mobile device with a camera, can display everything from a headshot to a resume, LinkedIn account information, personalized video, etc. [Also see: "Slideshow: Techie business cards"]
AR has yet to prove itself in business software, but with the growing BYOD trend and the natural tendency for businesses to incorporate software that increases efficiency, AR will likely be considered as long as its progression stays on track with its promise.
Nichols is a systems analyst with a passion for writing. His interest in computers began when Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in a regulation chess tournament. When Nichols isn't drawing up diagrams and flow charts, he writes for BMC, leading supplier of cloud software solutions.