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Our future is flying whales and dancing dollars

A demonstration of augmented reality by Intel last January showcased the power of this new technology.
A demonstration of augmented reality by Intel last January showcased the power of this new technology.news.usc.edu

Ron Azuma of Intel was feeling more stress than he’d ever felt in his whole life. A respected pioneer in the field of augmented reality, Azuma was standing in the shadows of a large ballroom at a Las Vegas hotel last January waiting for his cue. On stage was Intel CEO Brian Krzanich and he, Azuma, and the rest of the Intel team were about to give a large audience one of the most advanced and spectacular public demonstrations of augmented reality technology seen to-date.

Behind Krzanich, a large whale moved visually across the ballroom screen. Suddenly, the whale turned, faced the audience and “swam” out of the screen and into the ballroom itself, drawing gasps from the crowd. In an online clip of the event, you can see Azuma himself standing in the middle of the room, “guiding” the whale through the ballroom using his iPad pointed at the ceiling and once again expanding the limits of a new technology that is just beginning to have a profound effect on our daily lives.

Augmented reality (or AR) combines real with virtual, is interactive in real time and usually registered in 3D. It is a technology just in its infancy, but is filled with enormous potential as seen over the past two days during the Augmented World Expo (AWE) held at the Convention Center in Santa Clara, California. As Dr. Helen Papagiannis told the gathering yesterday, “Our mission is to go where there is no path and leave a trail.”

And there was plenty of trailblazing at this year’s conference. A startup called Meta launched its SpaceGlasses, eyewear billed as the “first holographic interface.” Another company – Thalmic Labs – showcased an arm band that gives wearers gesture control to manage video playback on a TV screen or move slides during a presentation. And Metaio offered attendees a glimpse at an infrared camera and technology called “Thermal Touch” that can turn any physical object into a touchable interactive surface.

A number of companies and research institutes are working on clever new uses for AR technology that transform flat building wall murals or local currency into creative, interactive visual presentations. BC Biermann is using his City Visions project to create wall murals in public urban spaces that can be viewed on tablet or cellphone in 3D, where the images come alive in motion and offer links to other material. Nicholas Henchoz from the Swiss Institute of Technology set up a display at the conference where paper currency had images of men or women dancing between the dollar signs when viewed using a special screen.

The need for special screens or devices to see augmented reality in full glory is probably the greatest limiting factor for now. The conference expo, now in its fifth year, had no less than ten different makers of glasses this week. Much of the eyewear on display was clunky and cumbersome. The “bleeding edge” of this technology is in prototype form, not yet ready for the mass market.

There was a fair amount of optimism that Google Glass will open the door towards advancing this highly visual and interactive technology. But so far Google has not appeared too interested in AR applications, despite their recent purchase of Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset for 3D gaming. Nevertheless, one would be hard pressed to attend a conference where there were more Google Glass users than at AWE this week.

There are signs that augmented reality is beginning to make the transition from gimmick to value. Qualcomm announced yesterday that they had crossed the 100,000 milestone for developers using their AR product – Vuforia. And a representative from Raytheon joined a presentation by Daqri to describe how the use of augmented reality in the bid process helped land an $8 billion contract to build fighter jets for the U.S. military. That’s the kind of value that gets noticed.

In his opening keynote, conference organizer Ori Inbar, CEO of AugmentedReality.org, described a vision where AR becomes the key interface between wearables and the world. That potential was on full display Wednesday evening when the conference featured a fashion show, complete with runway, sleek models, and designers to showcase the latest is wearable technology clothing. There were dresses sewn with tiny speakers and flashing lights linked to biometric sensors. One offering included a neck muff that glowed various colors to indicate the wearer’s mood. (Hint: if it’s glowing red, run away.)

The noted technology evangelist and author Robert Scoble addressed the gathering and described a growing divide in society today between those who are “all in” when it comes to adapting to the fully connected world and those who are “all out.” It is still early, but as augmented reality becomes more fully formed and part of mainstream technology, opting out may become a lot tougher than you think.