Augmented Reality: A Practical Guide

cover of Augmented Reality book
I’m jealous. The Prags have just published a book I wish I’d thought of first: Augmented Reality: A Practical Guide.

I’ve been talking quite a bit about augmented reality lately, especially when people ask me about what I think might represent a discontinuity significant enough to represent a paradigm shift of the scale of the PC revolution or Web 2.0. Sensors instrumenting the world and driving collective intelligence applications that provide new information layers in our everyday experience is one big element of this next revolution.

The topic also comes up whenever people ask me about Second Life, because I’m much more fascinated by the possibility of SL to create additional information layers on top of this world than I am about the idea of it as a complete alternate reality. I usually point to an SAP project I learned of last year, in which SAP is working with a Swiss property management firm to build instrumented models of their buildings in Second Life. That is, you open a door in the building, a door opens in the SL model. The building catches fire, so does the SL model. And of course, that’s why I was so excited about Google’s acquisition of Sketchup. It seems to me to be a really important long-term play in the mapping space. After all, so much of the built world we interact with isn’t represented at all on the maps we use. An address on the 37th floor of a building looks just the same to our mapping system as one on the first floor. But does it need to be that way? Not in a future where we’ve populated our maps (at first perhaps Google Earth, but eventually web-based maps as well) with additional layers representing the human-built world.

Augmented reality is also coming at us in the news, especially forward looking news outlets (hint: “News for nerds. Stuff that matters.”) Take a look at these recent Slashdot headlines and think about them as all part of an emerging augmented reality trend: Smart ‘Lego’ Set Conjures Up Virtual 3D Twin, Cellphone App Developed that Could Allow For ‘Pocket Supercomputers’, Stanford’s New Website Converts Your Photos to 3D, and The Coming Wave of Gadgets That Listen and Obey. Add in the recent Radar posts The Future of Cell Phone Headsets and More on the Virtual Reality Audio Headset. Season with a dash of Nintendo Wii and innovative cell phone games like Mobzombies (Radar post.)

We’re clearly careening towards a world in which virtual worlds are overlaid on the real world, bits interpenetrated with atoms.

I should be clear that this broad-strokes definition of augmented reality isn’t what’s covered in the Prags’ new book. They are focused on a more traditional definition: “to create the sensation that virtual objects are present in the real world.” They provide some first tools for developers to explore interfaces and techniques for doing so, with an emphasis on overlaying rendered objects onto real time digital video. This is a subset of the big picture I’m drawing in this post, but an important one. And perhaps even more to the point, this book will help to socialize the idea and to get people started building the new skills that will be required as augmented reality interfaces go mainstream.

tags: , ,
  • Russell Duhon

    If you haven’t, take a look at the recent anime Dennou Coil. The basic presumption is that we have this overlaid reality — a pervasive one.

    The story yields many things to the expediencies of storytelling, but the basics are remarkably possible. There are special glasses that provide the overlay. People, particularly children, have ‘cyberpets’ that can serve as personal agents for small, basic tasks.

    Most of the overlay is just identical to reality, providing a common layer for interaction. I suspect that overlaid reality will tend to be more personal as it evolves, but it might be that benefits of common references make a large amount of shared virtual reality possible.

  • Thanks Tim!

    It still bothers me that almost all modern source code could be printed faithfully on a Gutenberg-era press. 2D, B&W, columns of text. Considering the richness of what we’re trying to express, the whole idiom seems rather dated.

    But now that we’ve got cool tools such as this, let’s see what someone can invent.


  • This information sharing frontier is certainly intriguing and seductive.

    But before getting lured into this lifestyle, try to imagine what social skills will be go into atrophy as mainstream society adopts this lifestyle in the coming decades.

    Certain social skills and attributes that we in this early tech era must use and now take for granted, will be a valuable commodity in a new era.

  • I thought this recent effort was pretty impressive:

    Also, National Geographic has a short video on AR making the rounds: National Geographic video. It make s a nice companion to the YouTube piece, which is more academic/technical than practical.

  • Sensors instrumenting the world and driving collective intelligence applications that provide new information layers in our everyday experience” — Tim, I know you’re a William Gibson fan. This sounds like ‘the locative‘ from his latest, Spook Country, don’t you think?

  • Add to the list of news trends that the cover story of Communications of the ACM, February 2008, Vol 51, Number 2 is “Alternate Reality Gaming.”

    The article is here (might need account to access):

  • You guys should also chck out the upcoming Mixed Realities Symposium in Boston. It is an exhibition and symposium that explores the convergence—through cyberspace—of real and synthetic places made possible by computers and networks.

    From the site: “Mixed Reality is the merging of real and virtual worlds to produce new environments where physical and digital objects can co-exist and interact in real-time.”

  • Hey sorry for those 3 posts, there was something wrong with the re-captcha I think.

  • Harvey Pengwyn

    I guess the interesting question is ‘why didn’t you publish it?’.

  • Harvey —

    Partly because I’ve been following this stuff at another level, and the Prags picked up on a specific angle that I wasn’t looking at. And partly because I didn’t think the time was right yet. Publishing books is like surfing: you have to catch the wave. Too early and the book dies. Too late and the book dies. So you watch, and you place bets.

    In this particular case, I think we’re still very early in the trend. There are going to be lots of opportunities to publish here, as there are no clear standards on how to approach this technology.

  • Ray

    This is very interesting. I wrote an article about this last year and called it VirtuReality. I think it affects our consciousness in both the physical and ethereal more than we might realize or admit. It’s cool to see that others recognize it too :)

  • Harvey Pengwyn

    Tim — thanks for taking the time to reply. I can see your point, though I am looking forward to my copy of the book arriving!