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Augmented reality? Sounds like The Matrix, we hear you cry! In fact, the Wachowski brothers’ movie was all about virtual reality; augmented reality is much less creepy and much more exciting (and useful) than that. Plus, it’s already here.

In layman’s terms, augmented reality is where your view of the real, physical world is added to by some computer-generated input, whether that’s sound, pictures, or GPS information. Think Arnie’s robotic POV in the Terminator movies—but think benign!

The Master Key

Writer Frank L. Baum, best known for his Oz books, came up with the idea for augmented reality back in 1901, in his story The Master Key, in which a kid gets a pair of fancy specs which tell him whether the people he sees are good, evil, wise, foolish, kind, or cruel.

Augumented reality

War games

It took another ninety years for anything like that to become operational, but, in 1992, the US Army trialled an AR system in combat vehicles that used two-way streams to channel real-time simulation data between live and virtual players. Obviously these guys were thinking of developments in weaponry, but they also suggested how the tech might be used in civilian life—in architectural and scientific visualisations, manufacturing, training, and gaming.

Augumented reality 2

ARQuake, rattle and roll

And, sure enough, in 2000, ARQuake was unveiled. The first outdoor mobile augmented reality game, and a spin-off of Quake, this was a first-person shooter that used GPS, a special controller, and a hybrid magnetic and inertial orientation sensor, to let you strap a laptop onto a backpack and run around the real world firing virtual bullets at monsters and buildings that the game overlaid onto your actual surroundings. One mainly for the boffins due to its high price (and unflattering headgear) it still gave us a glimpse into what AR could do…


The magic map

So, how, you ask, does all this obscure high-tech wizardry affect me? Well, if you get your hands on a Nokia smartphone, like the new Lumia 920 or 820, or even the slightly older Lumia 710, 800 or 900, you’ll be able to access Nokia’s augmented reality app, Nokia City Lens. This is a location-based gizmo that uses the phone’s viewfinder and Nokia Maps to give you a 3D what’s-what view of your neighbourhood. Hold your phone up so the camera can see where you are, and the app will immediately overlay your street-view with virtual signs to the best places to eat, drink, sightsee, or shop.


Keeps you ontrack, offline

And don’t worry if you’re temporarily offline—Nokia have that covered. The Lumia 920 and Lumia 820 can put you on the map even without internet access, using their autonomous assisted GPS and GLONASS receivers.  Handy? You bet. We’ve all followed our GPS to some unfamiliar street and then stood scratching our heads because we couldn’t find the café that was allegedly under our noses—well, Nokia City Lens can solve that particular bugbear by showing you exactly where to go. As well as labelling what you’re looking at, it will, of course, also give directions, and allow you to share your findings with your friends. Snazzy, hey?

What’s more, we’re sure Frank L. Baum would have approved.