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March 15, 2010

Augmented Reality – will I ever become the bionic woman?

Nokia's Point and Find - Future of AR?GLOBAL – There was a time when reality was enough. A time when you’d wander to work befuddled by the many landmarks and intriguing statues punctuating your journey – am I the only one who doesn’t know what they all mean? You’d stumble through the doors of a restaurant without recommendation, and saunter into shops minus that elusive money-off coupon. It was a different time, it was every day life, a routine system of expectations, triumphs and disappointments based on judgement and luck. Well, I reckon those days are soon gone.

Thanks to the tech world’s latest buzz-phrase, Augmented Reality, it won’t be long until a shower of enlightenment descends. The fog lifted, you’ll never have reason to be confused when wandering past a strange town monument, feel lost without instant access to the nearest taxi rank phone number, or coupon-less as you trot into your favourite shops. You’ll have the ability to quickly tap into locally relevant information on everything and anything, as long as you’ve got your Nokia on you. Simply aim your phone’s camera at a landmark/shop/eatery and information about the place, whether it be reviews, directions or opening hours, will appear floating over the real world image. So do you think it will catch on… and if it does, how great are the possibilities?

Augmented Reality, in its current guise, is yet to make me feel like the bionic woman… although my superpowers are beginning to blossom and show promise. There are some exciting developments with Nokia Point & Find and apps such as Wikitude World Browser, providing an introductory taster to the limitless power I could soon be tapping into via my Nokia. A while back Nokia’s Head of Design Adam Greenfield highlighted, “AR is currently just an interface. It’s only useful or compelling as the information populating it. Without meaningful, timely information, all AR can do is give you another window into the biggest most empty room of all.” But the great thing is that room is already quickly beginning to flood with valuable info (fueled by communities as well as companies), and I’m eager to take the plunge, head-first.

Handsets are now at the forefront of AR and are seen as the perfect tool for showcasing its mighty potential. The Nokia Research Centre in Hollywood has been exploring and developing the concept since 2008 (watch this original video which highlights how other portable products could use Augmented Reality). Today, Nokia’s smartphones feature all the necessary components to make it work, with onboard GPS, sharp cameras, fast over-the-air internet access, and a means of presenting relevant information clearly via large screens. It is phone technology that is pioneering AR technology – they are the vessels for this initial phase of exploration, and are already leading us towards research that will make our relationship with data more ergonomic and instinctive, satisfying our insatiable appetite for information with minimal fuss.

Augmented Reality promises to make the process of finding relevant information easier and faster. So, considering the phenomenon that is Twitter, we love to know what’s going on immediately when it comes to social information. Does Augmented Reality have a role to play here? I think it does. Park all notions of an Orwellian future, this isn’t about Big Brother watching, it’s about sharing the world with your friends in a new and exciting way. If a new technology strives to give us speedy and ever-more relevant information, we must embrace it. It’s up to us not to abuse it. In the case of Augmented Reality, it’s a new window onto the world, which has huge potential to make our lives easier.

But still, you might wonder, will we ever be able to switch off? With news hitting headlines of stress in the work place due to access to 24-hour email what will happen when we have constant access to information via Augmented Reality services? Each time we walk past a person we’ll be bombarded with their lunch plans, Linkedin information, Facebook status and favourite playlist. When we walk down the street information about the latest restaurant review, film showings, and resting places will flood our eyes. Will it all be too much? I don’t think it has to be, but what do you think? Consider this, the other side of the argument – AR will actually allow us to relieve some of the stresses of actual reality. Have a Nokia phone in your pocket and you won’t get lost, eat a bad meal, or experience a world with huge info chasms dotted across the landscape. Sure, you won’t need to fill them all in, but you can choose the potholes you want to pour valuable information into. For example, there are already apps that allow you to point your phone at your tube stop to find out line information and service updates for your intended journey. This side of AR adds friendly buffers to a world of sharp edges. It takes away risks and can prevent time-wasting.

As Swiss playwright Max Frisch stated, technology is, “the knack of arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it”. Augmented Reality could give us more time to enjoy the finer things, rather than spending our time locating the finer things, only to take a wrong turn at the last corner.

If normal old reality ever really was enough for us, video game sales wouldn’t net more profit than Hollywood and 3D television wouldn’t be stealing every headline. We need something more, don’t we? We’re compelled to drain every last bit of information from what’s in front of us so as to make our lives that little more enriched. And most importantly, we want this to all happen in the swiftest and easiest manner possible.

Arguably, all we have to really worry about is becoming too dependent on Augmented Reality. As Karl Marx stated: “The production of too many useful things results in too many useless people”. But then again, he never had a camera phone.