Making Sense of Augmented Reality
The next innovation to change how we find and interact with information is not a new type of phone or software—it’s augmented reality. Augmented reality (AR) is an expressive medium that layers a virtual world over the real world, and it has the potential to change how we learn and do business. University of Illinois researcher and I-CHASS Associate Director of Human-Computer Interaction Dr. Alan Craig has been developing augmented reality applications since the mid-1990s. His new book, Understanding Augmented Reality: Concepts and Applications, came out this summer. Ask him for a demonstration and he will pull out an iPad and a few pieces of paper, and make roaring dinosaurs and delicate flowers come to life on the table in front of you. Dr. Craig works with education and business partners to advance the technology that supports augmented reality as well as to develop new applications of AR that so far have benefited groups as various as Native American school children in Alaska, medical students, and media consumers.
According to Dr. Craig, it is important to distinguish between augmented reality and virtual reality. Movies like Hackers and Tron have shown us vivid images of becoming fully immersed in an expansive virtual world. Augmented reality, by contrast, is deeply embedded in the real world. Virtual information like 3D images or movies is overlaid with what you see before you in real time through the lens of a camera on a portable device. For example, Dr. Craig worked with Access Magazine to create a special augmented reality issue. One need only download a free app called daqri, open the app, and hold a smart phone or tablet over the pages of the magazine. On some pages pictures suddenly come to life as movies. Elsewhere in the magazine 3D images appear and can be rotated or interacted with by “touching” the 3D image where it appears in the air.
Although AR developers find this medium to hold endless possibilities, according to Dr. Craig, most people still view augmented reality as a technological novelty. Augmented reality faces the same “chicken and egg” problem that was faced by the internet—there is little reason for widespread adoption of AR until there is plenty of useful content for users, and there is little incentive for businesses or developers to create content until they have a user base that is willing to adopt the medium. The enormous practical potential of AR becomes quickly apparent, however, once one actually sees the medium at work. Dr. Craig gives demonstrations that include a three-dimensional image of a human body lying on a table. The user can toggle different layers on the image to see the bones, muscles, and circulatory system.
A student studying anatomy no longer has to look at two-dimensional drawings in a book or wait to look at plastic models in class. He or she can start an app and look through the device’s screen at a life-size model lying on his or her table at home. It will not be long before specially designed glasses or contacts can take the place of screens so that people can use with AR ubiquitously as they interact with their everyday world. Once content availability and viewing method problems are solved, another challenge Dr. Craig says is sure to follow is that of developing content channels in order to see only the AR content that you want to. Imagine driving down the street wearing AR glasses and virtual creatures fly through the air while advertisements and movies flash across every building. Just as we are able to choose one TV or radio channel at a time, we need to be able to select our AR content or our lives would become virtually overwhelming. Channels of AR content will also make it possible for AR at one location to target more than one audience at a time. Dr. Craig suggests that museums could use AR to enhance a display with a movie or 3D image, having different content for children, adults, and even researchers.
Dr. Craig gave some practical and yet philosophical advice for designers of AR. His recommendations are grounded in the idea that AR is truly an expressive medium, like film or radio, which means that creating AR applications is a narrative and artistic process before it is a technological one. Dr. Craig recommends that AR creators “think about what it is they really want to do, regardless of what the technology can do, and then see what has to be done to advance the available technology to accomplish their goals.” This approach not only frees AR creators to pursue the most meaningful content, it also pushes forward the technology that supports the medium. For example, photographers in the 1800s improved the pinhole camera not simply to innovate technology, but rather because they had a vision in their minds of what they wished photographs could become. Secondly, Dr. Craig says that AR developers must understand the medium in order to make something compelling. Part of understanding the medium is knowing that designers, programmers, and artists need to work together to create AR applications that are useful, functional, and aesthetically beautiful to interact with. “It’s the content that’s appealing,” Dr. Craig reminds us. Currently, augmented reality exists primarily in the workrooms of developers like Alan Craig, but not for long. Soon we will be able to step outside to see virtual art galleries on our lunch breaks, or simply look at a nearby restaurant to pull up pictures of the food inside and read reviews. Instead of thumbing through a repair manual you could download an AR repair app that generates floating arrows that point at the next screw you need to loosen to get at a broken part. Dr. Craig believes that widespread use of augmented reality is not far away. “This is clearly the beginning of augmented reality and it seems like it’s about to break free. It feels like right before the web broke free…where it became pervasive and very useful.” Researchers interested in learning how to use AR in their work can set up a meeting with Alan Craig or another I-CHASS member by sending an email to Michael Simeone, the Associate Director for Research at firstname.lastname@example.org. I-CHASS connects researchers in the humanities, arts, and social sciences to technology specialists, computer applications, and special training. If you are interested in becoming a user or developer of augmented reality, we recommend you read Dr. Craig’s new book. Additional links to AR resources are below:
- Dr. Alan Craig’s Bio
- University of Illinois Alma Mater App
- National Geographic’s Video of People Using AR for the First Time
- Augmented Reality Eyewear
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