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The New Reality – Coming Soon

Our world is already filled with augmented reality views, though we may not realize it. Have you ever watched a football game replay with arrows and circles drawn over the field to show the trajectories of the players and ball? Or donned special goggles in a museum to watch a virtual volcano explode on what seems to be a flat surface with only a black and white, pixilated symbol affixed to it? These are some simple, current uses of augmented reality (AR) technology. The term is believed to have been coined in the early 1990s. Given that AR has been around for a couple of decades, what’s new about it?

The increasing use of handheld devices with cameras, GPS, wireless Internet, and relatively large digital viewing screens has made AR technology available to the general public en masse. New applications are being created for, and purchased by, iPhone and Android users, with most early adopters being teens and young adults.

Are you in an unfamiliar neighborhood in a city? Hold your phone up to view your surroundings and an overlay will appear with the locations and distances of nearby WiFi hotspots, restaurants, coffee shops, and bars (see Figure 1). If you’ve parked your car in a large, full parking lot or garage and can’t recall where it is, the Car Finder app can help you locate it by providing a digital image of a virtual car on top of the physical location of your vehicle. One Dutch firm has created an augmented future reality; when one views a particular location through a device, the building that will be built there is overlaid, and the viewer can take a 3D tour “through” the not-yet-present structure.

These apps are location-dependent, but others have been developed to work wherever the phone and user are. One app allows you to overlay a digital fire on your surroundings as you view them through your phone. You, as the firefighter, then get out the fire hose—also virtual—and extinguish the blaze before it spreads. The iPew app grants you the satisfaction of “shooting at” your friends, teachers, boss, or anyone in your sights with laser beams, a flame thrower, or your choice of several other weapons.

AR technology’s potential applications are beginning to be realized by developers. Children will be able to hold a device up to a story book in order to see the characters in animated 3D with accompanying music or voice. Instead of renting an audio tour for a trip through a museum, merely peering at an art piece through your phone will enable sound, informative text, or a walking, talking visit from a digital replication of the artist. Imagine Leonardo da Vinci telling you about the Mona Lisa, pointing out details of interest on the portrait as you view it through your Droid. Customers in a large retail setting could use their handhelds to locate items throughout the store, and view specs and reviews of the product once they find it.

Product packaging in the future may have to be changed to incorporate the AR generating symbols that, when viewed through a phone, will convey information including 3D views, written or audio reviews, and videos of the product’s use to the consumer.

AR apps have many potential applications in the marketplace. If businesses are to capitalize effectively on this rapidly growing technology, usability experts must be familiar with it and ready to apply their knowledge and skills to the design of new AR apps.

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