Augmented Reality 2012: Is the dream any closer?

Stuff of the cinema but panned as gimmickry in the real world, augmented reality soldiers on in 2012. The concept is a noble one - annotate the world around us with virtual information to enhance our understanding, enjoyment and usefulness of the immediate environment; turn us into the Terminator, essentially, but minus the hell-bent desire to wipe John Connor from the history books.

The problem, as ever, has been that the stuff of science fiction has, practically speaking, been a lot further away than the movies would have us believe. As we saw during AR Week on Pocket-lint, there are quite a few barriers between augmented reality’s beginnings and a state of seamless technological nirvana. So, several years later, with smartphones now all but ubiquitous and the idea of AR firmly familiar with the tech-savvy public, has it come on enough to be of any real use?

“Good and useful is the key,” according to Jay Wright, senior director, business development at Qualcomm, a company that has heavily funded the development of AR in laboratories and research centres the world over.

“There was a lot of criticism about it being gimmickry and a lot about those crazy black and white markers in the early days,” he tells Pocket-lint.

Anyone who waved a piece of paper in front of their computer’s webcam will know to what Jay refers, but right now it’s with the mobile phone that there’s been the most work, development and, yes, success but perhaps not in the way that you were hoping or thinking.

Qualcomm is helping to power the idea of making marker-based AR a thing of the past - or certainly to move it on to a point where you won’t recognise it as such - and that’s an important step. It’s the San Diego-based ARM chip specialist that’s been powering the Android revolution since it began and it ,has recently updated its set of AR software tools, for developers to use on the Snapdragon platform, known as Vuforia.

Originally, Vuforia simply allowed your phone’s camera to scan for a small set of target images stored locally on your handset. In other words, an app you own could be capable of having memory of around 80 different objects.

“If you’re a retailer, that’s just not going cut it,” slams Wright, describing AR apps where customers can pull up information, find colours and sizes, buy and arrange delivery by holding their phones up to products on the shelves.

The 2012 update, as outlined at Qualcomm’s Uplinq conference, now expands that database to a capacity of more than 1 million objects, the knowledge of which is stored in the cloud where the app can access. Suddenly, the potential becomes far greater with easily enough possible recognitions for any moderately specific task. The entire collection of even the largest of clothing chains becomes a cinch.

“Cloud-based image recognition represents a major step forward for Vuforia. We think it’s a key tech enabler that makes it viable,” claims Wright. “Vision-based AR that can use real world images that rely on natural environment; you shouldn’t have to change things or fix new stuff to it or what’s the purpose of vision?”

The drawback to this exploded library of images, of course, is that your phone will need a connection to the internet for it to work - rarely a reliable thing even in a modern age of 4G technologies. On the plus side, Vuforia does its best to minimise its data needs. Rather than sending a constant stream of video from your device up to the cloud, it waits for you to be still and sends up single, simplified images instead with green dots appearing on your mobile screen as it looks out for object edges and other identifying marks.

The system confidently works over 3G access but, as Wright admits, there are going to be times when even that is tricky given that lots of shops are inside large, concrete and steel built malls where the mobile signal is often not so keen to travel. The counter-argument is that more and more of these places have free Wi-Fi these days, but even the on-stage demo of the new and improved Vuforia at Uplinq 2012 struggled under the strain of all the audience users on sitting on the same local wireless network.

One company that has made AR work for it - and very well, according to its CEO, Ambarish Mitra - is Blippar. Blippar is an app that users can download to their smartphones, and any time they see a Blippar symbol in real life - most usually on a poster or some packaging - they can take out their handset, open the app and see what comes to life once Blippar recognises the image. A gimmick? Yes and no. For the user, the answer is often yes. Playing a game that launches as a result on your mobile is fun for a short time. Perhaps a movie poster that streams you the trailer is a little more useful, and one that then lets you go an and book tickets is certainly getting there. For the companies behind these adds, though, this use of AR is astounding.

“It turns traditional advertising into an interactive experience,” explains Mitra. “We have more than 150 campaigns, 750,000 users with an average engagement of four and a half minutes. That’s dwell time unparalleled to any other kind of advert medium at the moment.”

What’s more, the companies can measure exactly how each person interacts with their billboards, when they do it and where; all hugely valuable information when it comes to analysing which locations and designs are working for them and even which demographics, too. And this is where the truth around the current state of AR in 2012 lies. The good news is that it has broken through; the bad that it’s really only business that benefits at the moment.

“What’s driving this right now is using AR as an interactive media,” confirms Wright. “It’s something that’s very engaging and makes people go ‘Wow’. Therefore marketers are using it in that capacity.”

There are businesses employing augmented reality in interactive advertising in print materials, product information and ordering at point of sale, and there are even more possibilities once you get your items home. Whether it’s cereal boxes or plasters, brands like Weetabix and Band-Aid are not missing a trick and are even getting their customers to interact with the products long after they’re gone and only the box remains with animations of Kermit the Frog in app-rendered form to sing your children better after a cut or a graze.

This may not be the augmented reality we’ve dreamt of, you may not even like it, but the AR revolution has truly begun and its big business that’s paving the way. Companies like Qualcomm are supplying the chips and the tools, the developers are coming up with the tricks and the ad agencies are making it worth their while to to do so.

It’s this chain that will ultimately pay for the infrastructure to be built and perfected but, when it is - when the connectivity is flawless, the software integrated, the computer vision as sharp as a human’s and the next generation of personal AR gadgets have been funded to the point of real world usability - then the fun can finally begin.

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