Remember when virtual reality was all the rage? It had a good run, especially during the 1990s, and perhaps culminating with Second Life in the decade which just closed. But virtual reality is old in the tooth. People are a lot more interested these days in “augmented reality,” or at least they are on Google where it surpassed “virtual reality” as a search term sometime last summer (see chart).
Maybe people are searching for it more just because they are not sure what it means, but it definitely is entering the collective consciousness. If virtual reality is a complete immersion in a digital world, augmented reality (AR) is more a digital overlay onto the real world. It enhances the real world with digital data, and therefore it is much more interesting than a completely fabricated environment. There is an element of magic to AR apps because they juxtapose data and graphics where they have no business showing up.
The advent of touchscreen mobile phones with GPS and cameras such as the iPhone and Android phones is giving rise to an array of AR apps from Sekai Camera, Layar, and more. Generally, these apps show the world around you as seen through your phone’s camera, but in addition to functioning as a viewfinder, your screen also functions as a regular computer screen. With help from the GPS and on-board compass, it can place information or graphics on top of buildings or objects seen through the viewfinder.
But that is just the start. Universityresearch labs are springing up to explore augmented realty as a new computing interface. The latest AR app is the Parrot AR.Drone, and combines a flying remote controlled toy with an iPhone app. The app turns the iPhone into a remote control (a concept we’ve seen applied to video games), but there is also a camera on the drone, which let’s you see from its point of view and play virtual shoot ’em up games with other drones. The shooting happens on the screen, while the toys fly through the air in real life. There is also a solo mode where you can shoot enemy jets on the screen juxtaposed into your living room or wherever you happen to be flying the drone. (Watch the video below to see what I mean).
You can take your virtual reality and get lost on Second Life. I’ll take augmented reality any day. It’s just more real.