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Network World - Augmented reality is a coalescing of technologies that promises to create a new interactive relationship between mobile users and their surroundings. It's easy to make augmented reality sound like the latest technology in search of an application, but an analogy with jet fighter pilots might help.
Pilots look through the cockpit window, or a helmet faceplate. The inside of these surfaces is treated to display transparent images of cockpit controls and navigation data, a technique called "head-up display." Data, images and text overlay a view of the real world.
Smartphones now can apply that basic concept using very different technologies and take it to another level: adding data about the phone's location and orientation to relate the data overlays to the actual objects you can see onscreen through the phone's camera: buildings, streets and monuments.
You're able to "augment" the reality you see with data drawn from a variety of different online sources, such as Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, or commercial content providers. Typically a middleware server application acts as an intermediary, and pulls down the geotagged remote content. The client application runs the calculations to position the content with the "point of interest" on the screen.
The mapping of data to image is done by using the phone's GPS data to pinpoint the location, coupled with its onboard accelerometer and compass to figure out the phone's orientation and the direction in which it's pointing. In the future, the mapping can be made more precise and personal by factoring in the user's identity.
Network World blogger Mark Gibbs recently analyzed the different techniques used to analyze a real world scene and figure out where to place the augmentations. He was impressed by a Web-based AR application from the U.S. Postal Service: the Virtual Box Simulator, which lets you check whether something you want to ship will fit in one of the USPS flat rate shipping boxes.
The surging interest in AR is being fueled by its potential for mobile users. Japan's two biggest cellular carriers, NTT DoCoMo and KDDI, demonstrated at a trade show in July an AR system that populated browsers on Android-based smartphones with icons and information about restaurants or other sites near the subscriber's location.
Another example of AR in action is an early 2009 AR application from SPRXmobile, which lets you find ATMs from ING in The Netherlands. You point your Android phone's camera in a given direction, and information about nearby ATMs will pop up. SPRXmobile released the technology last June as Layar, billed as the world's first augmented reality browser. It later spun out a business called Layar.
Yelp, the social ranking site, introduced an AR application for the iPhone 3GS at the end of August. In one YouTube demonstration, the reviewer described it as "ranked reality," enabling the phone's user to stand in front of a restaurant and see ratings of it created and posted by other Yelp users.