Reality’s Bold New Look

One of the perennially upcoming technologies displayed at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show is augmented reality (AR), which enhances real-world images with digital data. So far AR has been a technology in search of a mission, but a few firms are betting that recent developments in image recognition and 3-D will finally enable it to become mainstream.

AR is a broad term for programs that let you look at the world around you, usually through a camera-like interface, and then add information or images based on what you’re looking at. For example, the free app Urbanspoon includes an AR “Scope” feature that overlays information about nearby restaurants by using your GPS location and compass direction.

One Las Vegas-based mobile developer might have found a way to make the AR technologies immediately practical. Tony Caporicci wrote the code for AugmenTat, the first augmented reality tattoo, which debuted in September at the Digital World Expo in Las Vegas. The technology could allow advertisers to take the static image of any tattoo and transform it into an interactive image, thus turning the tattoo into a potential Internet link.

To make AR apps more interactive, some companies are using image recognition and 3-D graphics, with occasionally impressive results. The U.K.-based company String has released a demo AR application that ignores GPS location and instead recognizes a target image. This means you have to download and print a PDF before the app does anything interesting. But once you do, it will show you a green monster walking around where you direct it, or a dragon crawling out of a hole in the wall (or anywhere else you place the target image). The demo is a great way to wow your friends, but for now doesn’t have much practical value.

Although consumer interest in AR has been weak, the same could have been said of tablet computers just a few years ago, so things can change fast. For now, no one has delivered the “killer app” for AR, so it remains to be seen when and how AR will finally catch on.