The history of augmented reality

The term "augmented reality" has been around since 1990 but that doesn’t mean that it was never there before. The moment that man made gadgets that could relate to their environment and supply their users with information based on that, AR was there. It’s just that nobody thought to call it that.

So, for those who want to know how it all went down, here is the history of augmented reality from birth to where we are today.

Beginnings

From 1957, a gentlemen known by the name of Morton Helig began building a machine called the Sensorama. It was designed as a cinematic experience to take in all your senses and, shaped, rather like arcade machine from the 80s, it blew wind at you, vibrated the seat you sat on, played sounds to your eyes and projected a form of a stereoscopic 3D environment to the front and sides of your head. It was supposed to be impressive with its demo film of a cycle ride through the streets of Brooklyn but it never sold commercially and was very expensive to make films for largely because it involved the camera man having three cameras strapped to him at all times, and while it was really more an adventure in full virtual reality, there are clearly elements of AR involved with both the devices in place between the user and the environment and that fact that the environment itself was, itself, the real world viewed in a real time situation - even if recorded.



In 1966 Professor Ivan Sutherland of Electrical Engineering at Harvard University invented the first model of one of the most important devices used in both AR and VR today - the head-mounted display or HMD. It was a monumental piece of kit that was too heavy for the human head to actually bear and so hung suspended from the ceiling of the lab instead which was how it got its nickname as The Sword of Damocles. Being early in the scale of computer technology, its graphical prowess was fairly limited and provided just simple wireframe models of generated environments. Nontheless, it was the first step in making AR a usable possibility.

AR is born

While it might have been aorund for a few years in one shape or other, the phrase Augmented Reality is supposed to have been coined by Professor Tom Caudell while working in Boeing’s Computer Services' Adaptive Neural Systems Research and Development project in Seattle. In a search to find an easier way to help the aviation company’s manufacturing and engineering process he began to apply virtual reality technology and eventually came up with some complex software that could overlay the positions of where certain cables in the building process were supposed to go. It mean the mechanics didn't have to ask or try to translate from what they found described in abstract diagrams in manuals.

At the same time, in 1992, two other teams were made big steps into this new world. LB Rosenberg creates what’s widely recognised as the first functioniong AR system for the US Air Force known as VIRTUAL FIXTURES where fixtures were what he described as cues to help guide the user in their task and did so in very big letters.

A second group, also fond of capping things up, made up of Steven Feiner, Blair MacIntyre and Doree Seligmann - all of whom now lead in the field of AR - submitted a paper on a prototpye system they called KARMA (Knowledge-based Augmented Reality for Maintenance Assistance). The team from Columbia Uinversity built an HMD with Logitech-made trackers attached to it and the object they were dealing with - a printer. The project was then to develop 3D graphics of a ghost image to show people how to load and service the machine without having to refer to instructions. The paper went down rather well and was widely cited within the science community.

And just to prove it’s not all work, work, work, AR hit the arts world in 1994 as Julie Martin (presumably not of Neighbours fame) became the first person to bring the concept into public performance. She created a government-funded show in Australia, sounding rather like a ITV celeb show, called Dancing in Cyberspace where dancers and acrobats interacted with virtual objects projected into the same physical space as themselves. Sadly, we haven’t been able to track down any reviews.

The app revolution

Until 1999, AR remained very much a toy of the scientist. Expensive, bulky equipment and complicated software all meant that the consumer never even knew of this growing field. As far as they were concerned, explorations into virtual worlds had died along with the Lawnmower Man. All that was to change though when Hirokazu Kato of the Nara Institute of Science and Technology released the ARToolKit to the open source community. For the first time, it allowed video capture tracking of the real world to combine with the interaction of virtual objects and provided a 3D graphics that could be overlaid on any OS platform. Although the smartphone was yet to be invented, it was what allowed a simple, handheld device with a camera and an internet connection to bring AR to the masses. Almost all of the Flash-based AR you see through your web browser will have been possible because of the ARToolKit.



In 2000 it was the turn of another consumer favourite to get involved with the AR revolution. Bruce Thomas and his team in the Wearable Computer Lab at the University of South Australia demonstrated the first outdoor mobile augmented reality video game. With an aim to remove all the monsters and guns and place them on top of a real environment that the user could actually walk around rather than using any kind of joystick, they came up with ARQuake. All you needed to do was strap a computer backpack on, have the gyroscopes and GPS sensors work out where you are, flip down your head-mounted display and suddenly you’d find the parking lot of the University of South Australia teaming with demons on their way to a good fragging. While Bruce and the WCL team are still developing the experience, there are no plans to commercialise it as yet. We’ll be hearing more from them later in AR Week.

Years later in 2008, the first AR apps come to smartphones where the world can actually begin to enjoy the experience somewhere close to what it’s supposed to be. Mobilizy was among the pioneers as it brought its Wikitude app to the T-Mobile G1 allowing Android users to take in the world through their mobile phone cameras and see augmentations on the screen of points of interest nearby. Wikitude soon hit iPhone and Symbian platforms as well and launched an AR navigation app called Wikitude Drive. Once ARToolkit was ported to Adobe Flash, the journey reaches where we are today with AR possible through the desktop browser and your webcam as well.

The future

With the phrase only coined in 1990 and the practice just reaching consumers two or three years ago, augmented reality is barely out of its embryonic stage. Relatively speaking, the devices are crude and the applications have only just started to get written but dawn has arrived in the AR world and it’s just beginnig to get warm enough out there for people to enjoy. As databases of rich information grow and the speed and ease of connections to them rise, this field is really going to come alive but if you want to read more about where it’s all going and what we can look forward to, well, that’s the subject of lots of other piece of AR Week on Pocket-lint. Stay tuned.

For more information on what Qualcomm is doing with Augmented Reality please click: http://www.qualcomm.co.uk/products/augmented-reality

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