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The Future is Now: Augmenting Reality

The Future is Now: Augmenting Reality

Anyone with even a fleeting familiarity of sci-fi pop culture has most likely been exposed to the concept of augmented reality. Do you remember the user interface in Minority Report, where stuff is nonchalantly flung onto translucent screens via Tom Cruise’s giant gloved gestures? Or the scenes in Iron Man, where Robert Downey Jr. is working on a holographic image of the Iron Man suit? That’s augmented reality. You’re there, in the real world, interacting with something you can see and manipulate that isn’t really there.


In 1990, Boeing researcher Tom Caudell first coined the term “augmented reality” to describe a digital display used by aircraft electricians that blended virtual graphics overlaid against the pilot’s view.

How is that different from virtual reality? Well, augmented reality is the interaction of superimposed graphics, audio, and other sense enhancements over a real-world environment that’s displayed in real-time, whereas virtual reality can be defined as a completely separate reality that tricks one or more of our senses into believing that it’s real.

It’s doubtful anyone would argue that the augmented reality has only become a household phrase with the meteoric adoption of Pokémon GO. However, to those in the AR biz, Pokémon GO isn’t actually augmented reality, because if it was, you’d be able to completely interact with your Pokémon; pet them, poke them, play with them, that kind of stuff. So it turns out that our cuddly monster friends are just a buncha poké phonies

“Games like Pokémon GO are fun but they’re really more location-based entertainment than augmented reality.” Says Ken Perlin, a computer science professor and founding director of the New York University Media Research Lab, “There is a fundamental difference between just slapping a label in front of something because I’m there and actually altering our perception of reality. If you or I are walking around and we’re seeing a creature through a wearable device over our eyes—as opposed to seeing it through our phone screens at arm’s length—then that creature has become part of our shared perception of reality. There’s a fundamental difference between our brains integrating objects into reality and simply being told that something is part of reality.”

Remember the infamous CGI shark from Back To The Future 2 who attacked Marty? That shark was an example of mixed reality, not augmented reality. (If you’re keeping track of time, by the way, that was supposed to have happened last year, which means… )

Yep, it’s really confusing. In the inner circles of experts in the scene, there’s a debate going on right now about what to call augmented reality and what to call mixed reality. One reason it gets so complicated is that for some reason “augmented reality” sounds better than “mixed reality.”

“There should be a unified grammar and vocabulary for navigating these experiences,” says John Underkoffler, the guy who designed many fictional augmented reality interfaces, such as seen in Minority Report, the first Iron Man movie, Ang Lee’s The Hulk, and Aeon Flux. So if you feel like the _____ reality dictionary is becoming a mish-mash of arbitrary terms more to do with what sounds good rather than means something, you’re not alone, the experts agree with you. Support group hug, you guys.

Fortunately, the lack of a consistent lexicon isn’t stopping innovation. Underkoffler’s company, Oblong Industries, is already creating real augmented reality interfaces that are being used in the real world. Whereas our own Legendary Entertainment has been working on some amazing interactive augmented reality experiences using Microsoft’s HoloLens:

What’s even cooler/scarier is that the likes of Google, Samsung, and Sony are working on breaking the screen, and even lens barrier, but putting augmented reality directly in your eyeball. In fact, a recent patent filing from Samsung refers to something called “Blink” – a connected contact lens that can beam images straight onto the retina. The Blink will apparently host a display, camera, and sensors to control the various feature using blinks and an antenna, presumably to maintain a link to a connected smartphone. The lens could overlay digital images onto your eye, for the ultimate augmented reality experience, and even record your surroundings for the ultimate in self-voyeurism.

Hand holding - zoomed in

What would our augmented future look like? Well, Eran May-raz and Daniel Lazo’s short film, Sight, imagines a world where AR is ubiquitous, and it feels remarkably, well, real:

What’s next on your sci-fi wish list? Put it in a comment, and I’ll research it. Your dream tech may be closer to reality than you imagine!

Image Sources: Iron Man/Marvel, Smart Contact Lens/Google Labs
Featured Image Source: em den/Flickr



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