With the impending arrival of Google Glass, augmented reality, long the stuff of science fiction, will soon be invading our every waking moment. It will turn us into faster learners, gamifying our everyday lives, transforming our to-do lists into streams of real-world next actions, and making advertising more intimate (and invasive) than ever. Next week, innovators from around the globe will gather for 2013’s Augmented Realty World Expo to show off some of the most useful—and improbable—applications of augmented reality. Here are some of the earth-shattering ways in which blending the virtual and digital worlds could change our lives.
1. Teaching you faster with place-based gaming and high-tech flashcards
The whole point of AR is to integrate information with the world around you, so it makes sense to use it as a tool for engaging students learning about lofty subjects. Jewish Time Jump: New York is an app that aims to do just that, sending NYC youngsters around Washington Square Park and matching up their GPS location with archival photos, information on events and people, and relevant historical documents. The digital scavenger hunt casts the player as a time-traveling reporter, even allowing them to insert their image into old photos as they “disguise” themselves to blend in with the past.
The game is what’s called a “place-based” experience, meaning that the media being shown is triggered by GPS location, but students can also use the app at home by scanning provided QR codes for each leg of the intended trip.
Using augmented reality for teaching isn’t completely new: Last summer, NASA unveiled Spacecraft 3D, an app that projects animated spacecraft onto the screen of your phone, making it look as if the rover is sitting on the table in front of you. Stephen Kulczycki, deputy director for communications and education at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, told press at the time that NASA’s intention was to educate a new generation of space enthusiasts:
“With Spacecraft 3D and a mobile device, you can put high definition, three-dimensional models literally into the hands of kids of all ages.”
The University of Central Florida is employing a similar technology, using a printed card to prompt your phone or tablet to run a 3D animation (UCF is acting on behalf of the US Army Research Laboratory’s Simulation and Training Technology Center). UCF researchers have made a standard learning tool—a deck of cards that outlines seven different surgical procedures used in battlefield triage—smarter. Now, an army medic can hold their phone up to a card and see step-by-step animations of procedures, such as needle chest decompression and hemorrhage control.
2. AR turns your life into a video game—or an over-choreographed musical
Augmented reality can turn just about any task—exercising, for example—into a video game, complete with explosions, points, and levels you can’t unlock without paying. Tech fitness geeks may recall an earlier iteration of this, “Zombies, Run!.” But that app, which sends you out to run for “missions” and urges you on with the sound of zombies catching up to you, was merely immersive—the gameplay didn’t change based on your movement, except to occasionally rob you of supplies if a zombie “caught” you because you slowed down.
True augmented reality is now available in the form of apps like BallStrike. To use BallStrike, you stand in front of your device’s camera (for now, just phones and tablets, but macbook compatibility is coming soon) and move around to punch and kick the balls that appear around you on the screen. The app is, by all accounts, effective and fun—but somehow we doubt that it’s going to magically make you a kickboxing aficionado, as shown in the video. Still, flailing burns calories, right?
Alternatively, you can use augmented reality to have a dance party with several dozen friends and Santa Claus.
3. Real-time visual aids give your life direction
Augmented reality can be used to provide real-time instruction. With images hovering over the project you’re working on, a good app can be more helpful than pages of written instruction.
While it isn’t on the market yet, Inglobe Technologies just previewed an augmented reality app that tracks and virtually labels the components of a car engine in real time. That would make popping the hood of your car on the side of the road much less scary. The app claims to simplify tasks like checking oil and topping up coolant fluid, even for novice mechanics.
If you’re more of a walker, get excited about Nokia’s newest update for their map application. Using the previously developed augmented reality app LiveSight, Nokia phones can now combine maps with live images from the street around them, allowing users to find their way even without knowing what direction they’re facing. No more turning circles to get oriented when you hop off the bus or subway.
4. Retailers want you to see yourself using their product—literally
Augmented reality’s biggest market? Retail. For major retailers, augmented reality is a way of getting into consumer’s hearts, heads and homes. If you haven’t used it yet, you will soon.
Augmented reality company Total Immersion’s 2013 show reel is almost entirely made up of various ad gimmicks by big-name companies: Dior has a “magic mirror” screen (one that adds something to the viewer’s person in real-time) that shows its customers on a red carpet, surrounded by paparazzi. Tic Tac used several “advergames,” or mini games a customer can access on their phone by scanning an advertisement or package. Braun and Olympus have both created websites that allow potential customers to do nothing more than pretend to hold their products in hand, allowing them to examine them from all angles from the comfort of home. Similarly, Samsung lets you see what a big screen TV would look like on your bedroom wall. Bloomingdale’s lets you try on glasses on the sidewalk before deciding if you should walk in and buy. In April, Japanese company Digital Fashion Co. presented a new magic mirror system that allows customers to see how clothes will really look on them—down to the twirl of a dress when the woman wearing it spins around.
Augmented reality requires the active participation of the user; it won’t hold up as just a marketing gimmick. For now, customers are merely gawking. But 2013 could be the year of the magic mirror.