Augmented reality in smartphones is set to become the next big thing. We look at what the concept is, what it'll be used for and whether current smartphones can handle the technology.
What is augmented reality?
The term augmented reality can actually be applied to two types of technologies. One version of AR involves systems that use a webcam or a video camera to capture an image of a user (his head, hands or body, etc) or of a real-world object in real time and put that image on a computer screen.
Software then tracks the user's or the object's movements in real space so it appears that that user or the object is interacting with a virtual object (like a 3D graphic model) on the screen.
This type of AR technology has been used in video games (like the EyeToy for the PlayStation 2), in promotional tools and as an online shopping aide - for example, a system could allow a shopper to 'try on' clothes virtually before making a purchase.
In the business world, this version of AR might be used to test products or marketing ideas. Total Immersion SA is one company that sells this type of technology to other businesses.
The second kind of augmented reality systems use webcams or the cameras of smartphones or other devices to capture real-world images and then lay text, links or other objects (again, like a 3D graphic model) over the images on-screen.
With this type of app, you can point the camera of an internet-enabled device at a building or landmark and receive helpful information about it right on your screen.
This form of augmented reality has been getting the most attention because of the novel way it allows the user to interact with the world. But how does it work?
First, the AR app reads your phone's GPS data to find your location on the planet. Then it determines the phone's orientation from its electronic compass, and in some cases its accelerometer, to determine which direction you're pointing. (The compass indicates the direction in which the device is being pointed; the accelerometer determines its tilt.)
The app then searches its database for objects (text, hyperlinks, pictures, etc) that have been location-tagged (categorised by latitude, longitude and altitude coordinates) in the indicated compass direction from your geolocation.
If it finds any such objects (which could be provided by other users, a third-party provider such as a mapping service or website, or the app's developer), it lays them over the image of the building or landmark on your screen.
Say you aim your phone's camera at a restaurant. The AR app should be able to use the information in its database to identify the establishment and pull up specific pieces of information about it - operating hours, a menu, reviews, directions and so on - and superimpose links to that data over the image of the restaurant as it appears, in real time, on the screen of your phone.
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