January 2011
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Merging Digital with Real World

Eight years ago, the entire marketing industry went wild with excitement seeing Tom Cruise encountering interactive billboards and iris-triggered direct marketing in Minority Report. The magic, however, remained largely elusive to the common man.

On November 16 this year, however, Amsterdan-headquartered Layar closed a series B funding round of ¤10 million. Intel Capital had joined as its newest investor, reposing faith in an 18-month-old company which brings Augmented Reality (AR) to smartphone users.

If you have an Android or iPhone, Layar uses the mobile phone’s camera, compass and global positioning system (GPS) data to identify a user’s location and field of view. It, then, retrieves data based on those geographical coordinates, and overlays that data over the camera view.

All you would need is an internet connection (unlimited data plan recommended), camera, GPS and compass to be able to use Layar — all of which are typically bundled with smartphones. The Layar Reality Browser (can be downloaded or is a resident app in smartphones) shows what is around you by displaying real-time digital information on top of the real world as seen through the camera of your mobile phone.

Called Augmented Reality or AR, it is defined as the overlay of graphics onto a video stream or other real-time display. The technology, which was envisioned by Ivan Sutherland who devised the first augmented reality system in 1968, is flowering only now with customised applications in industrial automation, theme parks, sports television, military displays, and online marketing.

In particular, personal navigation applications for the Apple iPhone and Android platforms have seen early adoption, due to the intuitive nature of the real-time display, according an ABI Research study.
The trend is picking up. Consider these cases. Just head to your favourite hangout and no sooner have you walked in than that you see the youth whipping out their phones and checking in on the location-based app Foursquare (which is planning to open an office in India).

Big technology companies realise there’s a huge opportunity here. Google, for instance, has put together a mobile app for its Android platform that allows users to search visually. Simply take a picture of something, and Google will compare it to the images on Google image search to try and identify it.

Microsoft’s current technology extracts ‘interest points’ from images to provide characteristic information about a visual scene and therefore allows matching from one scene to another. The company has used this to automatically stitch together many photographs in Microsoft Image Composite Editor — a tool for assembling panoramas. Microsoft is also developing real-time solutions that are able to continuously match what is seen by the camera of a mobile against a database of known views of locations, obtained for example from Windows Live Street-side imagery.

Video game companies like Total Immersion make software that applies augmented reality to baseball cards. And there’s a “human Pac-Man” game that allows users to chase after each other in real life while wearing goggles that make them look like characters in Pac-Man.

The trend is simultaneously evolving. For instance, Articulated Naturality Web, coined by Steve Chao, chief executive officer of QderoPateo Communications (QPC), fuses AR and the internet. It is the combination of computer vision techniques, artificial intelligence and several other advanced technologies that allow the computer or mobile device to view the real world as a ‘scene’ via the camera lens. And Swedish software company Astonishing Tribe is experimenting with “augmented identification” on smartphones to identify people just by snapping a photo of them.

For now, location-based technologies favour modes like ‘Check-in’, which requires a user to log on to a site and literally “check in” as they would at an airport, and passive broadcasting, where your location is constantly being recorded. Location technology could even become predictive, It could help traffic and city planners and even inform health policy (imagine using the technology to figure out where epidemics could spread).

There are some challenges, though. Will handset makers be able to introduce AR browsers (like Layar and Wikitude) in low-priced handsets (and not just smartphones) so that the technology is available at a reasonable price point? Also, will visually impaired people be able to take advantage of AR with the help of braille-like and voice-aided tools? Further, GPS is only accurate to within 30 feet (9 meters) and doesn’t work as well indoors, although improved image recognition technology may be able to help.

There are also privacy concerns. Image-recognition software coupled with AR will, quite soon, allow us to point our phones at people, even strangers, and instantly see information from their Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, LinkedIn or other online profiles.

Regardless, there’s revenue for the industry associated with Augmented Reality. It is pegged at more than $350 million in 2014, according to an ABI research report. As advertisers learn to insert tags into navigation displays, mobile advertising revenue will grow slowly, representing a large portion of sectoral revenues in the 2013-2014 timeframe.


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