A decade ago, no one would have imagined we’d experience real-life events through tiny digital screens.
Yet time and again, we do – preferring these technological surrogates to our own eyeballs and instincts.
We trust our gadgets. And we seem increasingly nonchalant about the idea that technology is assuming a greater and greater role in our daily lives.

An AR Primer

What is augmented reality (AR), anyway?

In simplest terms, AR is an extension of the mobile Internet. AR is the phone in your pocket that you Twitter on. It’s the GPS unit mounted to a windshield that helped you find that fabulous sushi place on 4th and Main. It’s your iPod. Your Blackberry. AR is wireless. It’s untethered.

How are the Internet and AR related?

Very, very closely.

If the information superhighway was all about taking massive amounts of information in, augmented reality is about carrying that data back out and embedding it in our world.

We’re already in the early stages of this transformation. Hand held Devices are getting smarter. Whereas a Google search for a restaurant 2 years ago would have turned up the same results on both your desktop PC and your wireless device, the searches today are radically different. Wireless units traingulate positions and can tailor results based on the information. Your very essence – where you are at a specific time and place – is becoming a part of the algorithm. Your reality is becoming part of the search.

The merger between digital and physical is obviously in it’s very, very early stages, but it is here.

So is reality, as we know it, finished?

No. Well, OK … maybe. At least a little bit.

Here’s a quick explanation. The world today is forested with information. Think about the last time you walked into a Starbucks (or any place with WiFi access). You took out your pocket PC, hit a few buttons and immediately were immersed in a nearly-infinite sea of data. The meta information superhighway is there, at your fingertips, telling you everything from the score of the New Jersey Nets game (they’re losing, darn!) to the status of your FaceBook friend (he’s making rice for dinner, again)

And the natural conclusion from this is the information popping up on your screen is, in its own sense, a reality in and of itself. Your PC is a parallel world of zeroes and ones dutifully documenting countless things going on in our physical world.

But how will that reality blur with our physical reality?

Again, it’s already happening. William Wiles writes:

All these technologies have been around for a while, but only recently have they been combined in a single, portable device – the new generation of smartphones, such as Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android.

Now that these phones are in an increasing number of pockets, the first AR applications are appearing. In April Google launched Latitude, a program for the Android that lets you broadcast your location to your friends, and lets you see their location – like Facebook on a map. Since then, two of the first AR “browsers” have appeared, both for the Android – Layar.eu and Wikitude, both of which layer information in real-time over the view through the phone’s camera. If you hold up a phone running Wikitude, for instance, you see the same street in front of you, but overlaid with appropriate links to Wikipedia and Qype, a restaurant and bar review website. Other applications have been announced or demonstrated, such as Twittaround, which shows a live view of what nearby users of the microblogging site Twitter are saying, and Nearest Tube, which will point out the nearest Underground station in London, both of which became available on the iPhone in September.

What will be the result of living in this data-rich environment?

The results will, in many ways, parallel what happened when the mobile phone came into vogue. Relationships and arrangements will get more fluid. Instances of “I’ll call you when I’m in the area,” will continue to rise. And whole fields of human interaction and cognition are likely to change.

But the bottom line is this – despite the cheesy images depicted in Hollywood, augmented reality will work. Because it already is working. We love our technological surrogates. And for better or worse, AR devices are becoming an increasingly vital appendage for day-to-day living.