Reality is Plenty, Thanks

I watched this talk by Kevin Slavin at Mobile Monday Amsterdam three times already (which explains why it took me so long to post it here), and I still can’t understand what are his issues with augmented reality. One claim is obvious, and I tend to agree, that immersion is neither necessary nor sufficient for an exciting experience. His other claims may be confusing (or misdirected), yet Slavin is a master of weaving together anecdotes from history and his own personal life into a compelling story, which makes the following video interesting to watch. 


AR is the Pursuit of Eliminating the Latency Between Atoms and Bits

It’s been almost 4 years since I first got involved in the augmented reality community, and 2.5 years of actively blogging about it. During those years I’ve seen many try to define what’s AR and even more importantly what’s not. Many arguments whether GPS based, projection based or webcam based AR should be regarded as augmented reality, and should we dismiss roadsigns and maps as “not AR”. Four years, and only lately I came up with a definition the pleases me (and would be happy to hear your thoughts).


Augmented reality is the pursuit of eliminating the latency between atoms and bits.


let’s break it down.


Atoms and Bits – I think most of you agree that augmented reality is about delivering digital context (bits) to real world locations and objects (atoms). There are many ways to do so – using visual overlays, olfactory signals and haptic devices. Even within visual overlays there are many competing and complementary methods to augment the world. For me, both head up displays and roadsigns were at one time or another (or are still) augmented reality.


Eliminating the latency – Humans are lazy by nature and want to do more, faster and with less effort, be it physical or mental. That’s how technology evolved, and that’s how AR evolves. At first we needed to use maps to find our destination, which required us to identify our current location on the map (which always falls between the folds) and plan our route. This takes time (latency) and effort (latency incurred by the brain). With GPS we greatly reduced that time. With “windshield AR” we can reduce it even further, eliminating navigation mistakes that, you guess it, make us waste time.

Eliminating latency has another interesting outcome. It means that AR is bound to be peer-to-peer based or highly distributed. If you live in New York you don’t have the patience to access an AR server in Seattle, a mere 100ms away, if the atoms near you may change their position by then (or you just moved your head).


Pursuit – This alludes to the fact that augmented reality is not a thing but a movement. Methods that were once considered AR will not be in the future (e.g. maps). If five years ago you need to Google restaurants in your vicinity to find a good place to lunch, a process that took a lot of time, you can now use an AR browser. But using Layar (or any of their competitors) hasn’t fully eliminated the latency. You need to get your phone out of your pocket, and use your brain because the positioning of labels is still not perfect. Head up displays (or contact lenses) with high resolution positioning will make mobile phone based AR look antiquated like paper maps are today, because they have the potential to minimize latency to the speed of light and the speed of our brain. Enter the brain implants and only the speed of light will be a factor in the AR game.

Why Sports Enthusiasts are the Future of AR

There are a few topics that I’ve been planning to write about for months (if not years). One of them is the role sports enthusiasts (joggers, swimmers, bicycles fanatics) may have in the adoption of augmented reality head up displays. The recent onslaught of hi-tech ski goggles was the push I needed to finally do something about it.

Instead of writing a long post (which many won’t read), I’m trying something new here. I’ve created a short presentation with only a few words that describes my views. I would be very happy to hear your comments on this format. If you like it, I’ll create more presentations on other subjects.

What do you think? Am I completely off my mark here?

Is Augmented Reality Under Hyped?

Just playing around with Google Ngram viewer. If you didn’t get to try it yet, it’s a tool that shows the number of times a phrase appears in a big corpus of books that Google scanned.
So, “augmented reality” popularity is rising:

but, it still has a lot to go (at least when compared to virtual reality)

Unfortunately, Google’s database stops at the critical point, two years ago, right before the big buzz around AR started. Still, one can appreciate how quickly VR moved from the scientific lecture to popular lecture, while AR is taking its time.

Augmented City: The Creator of Domestic Robocop Blows Your Mind Again

I know some of you already seen the following clip on other blogs, but when I contacted Keiichi Matsuda two weeks ago, he asked me to wait till the final version is ready. Luckily, the wait was shorter than expected.

Keiichi Matsuda, the creator of the now famous dystopian short clip Domestic Robocop, is at it again. In “Augmented City”, a project that got him nominated for the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Silver Medal award (and no, there’s no golden one), Matsuda pushes forward his belief that modern cities are more than concrete, metal and glass occupying a physical space but also the digital information that is produced and consumed by the city’s residents.

Or, in Matsuda’s own words:

Augmented City explores the social and spatial implications of an AR-supported future. ‘Users’ of the city can browse through channels of the augmented city, creating aggregated customised environments. Identity is constructed and broadcast, while local records and coupons litter the streets. The augmented city is an architectural construct modulated by the user, a liquid city of stratified layers that perceptually exists in the space between the self and the built environment. This subjective space allows us to re-evaluate current trends, and examine our future occupation of the augmented city.

AR coupons may be littering the streets in Matsuda’s vision, but it still looks amazing –

I crossed my eyes to see this clip, but if you go on and watch the clip on Youtube you’ll be able to pick a red-cyan version and use your favorite 3d glasses. Want to learn more? Check out Keiichi Matsuda’s thesis.

Jesse Schell – Rethinking Vision

Jesse Schell gave what can only be described as a “kick-ass” keynote in ARE2010. In less than 30 minutes he gave me so many points to think about when considering augmented reality in 2020, that I couldn’t help but watch his presentation again, even though the video quality is less than perfect.

I will do great injustice to Schell by trying to summarize his talk, and you should really see it yourself, especially if you think that AR is about labeling things and will undoubtedly have a positive influence on our lives.

On a side note let me again apologize for not attending ARE2010. My transatlantic flight to Atlanta was canceled due to some technical problem and Delta wouldn’t put me on another flight heading to the US for another 24 hours. Considering the connection involved, this would have meant getting to attend only that last couple of hours of the event, so I’ve decided to forgo the all idea.
Assuming my rescheduled flight will leave has planned, I’ll be in San Francisco next week and the week after that in Washington DC, if anyone feels like meeting up.

Looking for an Augmented Reality Casual Game

Looking at the list of best selling applications for the iPhone, I started thinking (usually a dangerous habit). On the one hand, augmented reality wants to be mobile, and the best avenue for mobile AR we currently have are smart phones. On the other hand, we often imagine augmented reality (and surely AR games) as immersive experiences – if you haven’t seen it yet, checkout Roku’s reward.

The thing is, I believe that currently “mobile” and “immersion” are conflicting goals. Our mobile platforms are way too limited to enable immersion:

  • Battery capacity is very restricted
  • Screen size is quite small
  • Processing power and sensor accuracy are low (but I expect these issues to be alleviated soon)

Even more importantly, most mobile game players are not “gamers”. They don’t have a day to spend in a quest around the city. Users require simple but challenging games which can be played during brakes, while waiting in line or while riding the bus. This also limits us to games that don’t require us to carry much additional resources to be played, such as a boards.

As augmented reality enthusiasts we can ignore those problems, and just wait for them to go away once head-up-displays, powered by fuel cells, become wildly available. But this is a counter-productive approach, and still targets gamers. There is another approach – casual games. They fit the character of most smart phone owners and play nicely on the current available hardware. Most importantly, casual games are amongst the most purchased applications on the various app stores (here’s WSJ covering the phenomenon called Angry Birds).

We need to explore casual augmented reality games. Smart phones are on the brink of making such games plausible (if they aren’t already) but we still have to tackle the hardest problem – designing a compelling gameplay. Obviously, games that only use the camera’s input as a backdrop to a game, such as Firefigther 360, won’t cut it.

I asked on twitter what could such a game be, and skry suggested: “On your daily walk/run, some of the course offers a round of DDR, hopscotch, or calisthenics”. Frogger across real roads is another interesting proposition. What do you think? Will there be an AR equivalent of Tetris, Sokoban and Angry Birds?

To get your creative juices flowing I’ve attached two casual AR games that I really like, though both are not based on smart phones. The first is Carcade, a game you can play while riding a train by students at Berlin University of the Arts. The other is Candy Wars by students of the Augmented Environments lab at Georgia Tech (though it’s cheating a little bit, since it requires additional objects).

Has Augmented Reality Peaked?

Sorry for the attention grabbing title, but remember how we all celebrated when augmented reality passed virtual reality on Google trends, showing an exponential growth rate?

Well, it sure looked promising back last September, but since then, the interest in AR has stopped increasing, at least when measured is search volumes and news references

The current trend is even more obvious when compare with Foursquare (in red in the graph below), which really does show exponential growth:

so, what’s going on? there are a couple of possible explanations:
(a) Augmented reality has peaked. I can’t really believe that’s the case.
(b) Google trends was never an adequate tool to measure the popularity of augmented reality. Other measures, such as investments, acquisitions and actual downloads are much better indicators. All of those show positive trends.
(c) We have entered a new, uncharted area in Gartner’s hype cycle, one that I call the Plateau of immature technology. Simply put, the iPhone is not the optimal AR device, and it’s not even the best currently out there. However, most of us limit ourselves to developing AR applications on the iPhone (or even worse, in Flash), and thus the solution space is really limited. We see the same ideas rehashed time after time (though, some pleasant surprises do happen), and people loose interest. The trend line seems pretty constant (for now) because there are still some users who discover AR for the first time.

If you’ll ask me, augmented reality is not dying, but stalling, waiting for a breakthrough either technological or conceptual that will bring new type of applications to the market (much like Foursquare was for location based services). Would it come for one of the incumbents companies, a giant like Google, or maybe a stealthy startup? only time will tell.

Social Commons for the Physical World Platform

Tish Shute holds such great interviews for UgoTrade, that it should be considered a crime not to read them if you are an augmented reality fan or professional. Her last interview with Anselm Hook is especially interesting and engaging.

However, Tish’s pieces are usually quite long, and may be intimidating. In order to lure you into reading the whole interview with Hook, here are a few hand picked quotes:

Even things like Google Maps or mapping systems we think are so great are really just kind of almost an aspect of a hyper-local view. You actually don’t really care what is happening 10 blocks away or 100 blocks away. If you could satisfy those same interests and needs within a single block, one block away, you would probably be really happy. You really just want to satisfy needs and interests, find ways to contribute, or get yourself fed, or whatever it is you want. And AR seemed to be the playground to really explore the human condition.

There is a real risk of our augmented reality world being owned by interests which are not our own. There is a real question of when you hold up that AR goggle, what are you going to see? Are you going to see corporate advertising? Are you going to see your friends’ comments or criticisms? It is going to be an Iran or a democracy, right? It is unclear.

We, as a community, need to assert an ownership, kind of a commons, over how computers will translate what they see to information that we perceive.

As we move towards a physical internet where there’s no clicking and there’s no interface and the computer’s just telling you what it thinks you’re looking at, translating, you know, an image of a billboard to the name of the rock star who’s on that billboard, or translating the list of ingredients on a can of soup to the source outlets where it thinks that, those ingredients came from. When you have that kind of automated mediation, the question of trust definitely arises.

Search needs to be inverted, trust filters need to be built. We need to democratically own our data institutions. We don’t right now. That will be more of a concern, especially with AR.

Again, this is a very concentrated version of a most excellent interview. The ultimate augmented reality experience will be much different from today’s web. Instead of entering a search string and getting 10 results as possible matches, we will look at the world, and for each physical item we will get the first “I’m feeling lucky” result, as Google has determined for us.

If a new data provider finds it very challenging getting into the Google’s organic results these days, imagine how hard it would be for such a provider to win the first and only spot in tomorrow’s augmented search results. That’s assuming Google will keep playing fair and show results by how well they fit the search query (let’s just assume they are currently playing fair).

On the other hand, democratizing the outernet’s search engine may result with increased spam results. You may look at the Venus of Milo through your AR goggles, and get ads about prolonging your manhood. Wikipedia successfully fight spammers and hooligans. But, is there another Wikipedia like enterprise? Can the whole outernet be moderated by a limited number of industrious editors?

I don’t have an answer for any of those questions, but it seems to me that’s those are the most exciting and important problems we can try and tackle in the coming year. Tish advances the idea of a federated Google Wave-based infrastructure for AR. What do you think?

Augmented Reality and the Future of Social Interactiona

Jessica Lamb, a student at Georgetown University pursuing a Master’s degree in Communication, Culture & Technology asks:

If we are more easily able to find information about things and people around us — how do you think that might change the way we interact with people when we rely more and more on computers to deliver information we used to rely on people for?

Do you think that easier access to information will help or hinder meaningful social interactions? Will it create a bigger gap between people who can leverage virtual communications to widen their social network and those who are more reclusive? Do you think AR is more likely to expand or shrink the majority of people’s social networks?

Like many other technologies, scifi grade augmented reality can have both a positive and negative effect on one’s social life. Reclusive people will find the loss of anonymity a real threat, making them even more reclusive. On the other hand, friendly people will find more people to befriended with, and common interests with strangers.
Some will think of AR as a wonderful technology that transfers all the advantages of cyberspace to the real world, and for others, it will bring the dangers.

And yet, Jessica (and yours truly) are interested in your opinion on the subject. Be a science fiction author for a day and share your thoughts in the comments.