At its best, computing technology has the potential to make our imaginations come alive. Whether simple asteroid-blasting arcade games or super-scale simulations of the distant reaches of the cosmos, our experiences of the world have extended way beyond the everyday. The hard division between the real and the fantastic has blurred and Augmented Reality (AR) technology takes this idea to a very practical conclusion: live, digital mash-ups of real spaces and virtual objects.
Google’s Project Tango has potential to put this technology in the pockets of everyone with a phone or tablet (currently it’s available on Lenovo’s new phone only). A ghostly hidden realm, viewed through the unreal ‘torchlight’ of a location- and orientation-aware device, is revealed by mapping out physical space using the camera and projecting a purely virtual dimension on top of the image.
Useful applications are easy to think of: a good indicator of the potential for future widespread adoption. Furniture catalogues with items that appear already placed in their intended locations; museum exhibits that come to life; virtual store attendants that direct you through the shop; and videogames whose theatres of play are the nooks and crannies of your own home. The myriad possibilities for creative expression and practical application are as varied as they are exciting.
However, any new technology arrives with a cautionary note: the history of invention is littered with casualties that once showed promise but, for whatever reason, didn’t deliver. Consider the first flush of Virtual Reality (VR) in the early 1990s as an example: although feted by technologists and a media staple, ultimately it was a victim of underdeveloped hardware and high cost. An inspiring idea was trapped in an expensive, lumbering and ugly package that delivered much less than it promised.
In contrast, today’s phones are powerful and ubiquitous. Developers who want to get involved need only download a package to begin creating apps using the technology. The low barrier to entry for consumers and creators makes novel user-interface paradigms like AR an easy sell, if only to satisfy curiosity. On its own this is already exciting, but Google also has a longer-term ambition: achieving widespread acceptance of its soon-to-be-released dedicated AR hardware, Google Glass 2.
The success of this platform will depend largely on the availability of AR-enabled applications, so a cheap-and-cheerful substitute today paves the way to more dedicated consumer hardware in the future by providing a ready-made app ecosystem. The uptake of dedicated hardware in turn produces novel applications and cements the technology in the public consciousness. Boosted by similar products from other vendors and with overlapping consumer VR technologies enjoying their own surge in popularity, it’s likely that far from being a gimmick, this technology has potential to stick around for quite some time to come.