Q: Whatever Happened to Virtual Reality? A: Augmented Reality

Let me kick off these sections on Augmented Reality & Technology Trends with a mention of Christopher Mims’ recent post over at [MIT] TechnologyReview.com:

So what was it, really, that kept us from getting to Virtual Reality?

For one thing, we moved the goal posts – now it’s all about augmented reality, in which the virtual is laid over the real. Now you have a whole new set of problems

It will be worth your time reading his entire analysis of the question. Meanwhile, interesting things have been happening in the Augmented Reality (AR) field. First, it was Pranav Mistry from the MIT Media Lab demonstrating a cheap, adaptable and wearable gestural interface, aptly called SixthSense. Watch the TED Video from November 2009 here.

Then in 2010, marketers started experimenting with adding AR layers into the real world, making use of software such as the Layar platform for mobile phones. You can watch a convincing demo here. I say convincing because mobile phones are the most likely candidate for widespread adoption of AR technologies. Because if they were not, we would have more devices like the Wrap 920AR from Vuzix, which are basically wraparound goggles that provide an immersive AR experience.

The Video Game industry is always quick to adopt new interfaces (and often invents them),  and AR is no exception. Motus from the University of Abertay Dundee uses a Sixense TrueMotion controller (I couldn’t find any relation to SixthSense) to manipulate a virtual camera in a virtual environment, with applications in gaming, animation and simulation. It was originally inspired by the Simul-Cam that finally enabled James Cameron’s 20-year old dream to come to life, in the form of the 2009 movie Avatar. Ironic, a movie about remotely controlled humanoids, filmed using AR cameras.

Speaking of Avatar, not only was the technology behind it futuristic, but so was the marketing, which used an i-TAG system that allowed the manipulation of an on-screen 3D model, using a Webcam that scanned interactions with a tag in the physical world. Also, the same idea of controlling remote representative agents is explored in a different form in the 2009 movie, Surrogates, which IMHO was more “epic” than Avatar.

So the next question is: When will we reach the point when we won’t be able to tell the difference between what is “augmented” and what is “real”? Or would we rather not be able to?


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