Augmented Reality: Real Life with Toppings

Augmented reality technologies could change everything.

Posted May 19, 2010

Care to try on a dress, take your picture in a virtual Mardi Gras mask, or figure out what size box you need to ship a package—from your computer? You can with augmented reality (AR). There is a virtual dressing room at* virtual city visits on and a shipping box simulator at USPS. Tissot Watches made headlines this week with a display in London where you can virtually try on out the styles and features of their entire watch line. Pretty fun.

Don’t want to be house bound? You can take AR to the streets and use a smartphone to find a subway stop, locate a nearby restaurant AND read the recent reviews, or get information about a landmark.

AR is interactive, instantaneous, very cool, and coming your way soon. By superimposing digital information (text, pictures, audio, or visuals) onto what we currently think of as ‘real life,’ AR merges 3-D environments in real time.

Think of AR as a halfway house between virtual reality and plain old reality. Virtual reality provides a complete synthetic environment, like in the virtual world of Second Life or built-out areas of Google earth, like this example of Virtual Rome.

AR, on the other hand, adds to reality, like toppings on ice cream. In AR, virtual and real objects coexist in the same space. If you are a football fan, you’re already an old hand at this. The down lines and field markers that move with the plays are done with AR.

Don’t dismiss the recent emergence of Augmented Reality applications as marketing gimmicks or Hollywood fad. AR doesn’t just sell magazines, toys, and restaurant meals.

Virtual information is visible on a camera phone

Combining real and virtual objects can enhance our experience of the real world. Providing information overlays on real life facilitates all kinds of things—even things more important than shopping, like medical research and training, brain-behavior relationships, astronaut training, and even, dare I say it, education. Recent examples are a fourth-grade class in San Diego that used AR to learn about botany and the Getty Museum’s exhibit that lets you virtually explore 17th Century Augsberg Cabinet without paying for gas and parking.

AR also has great potential for therapeutic applications like treating phobias, PTSD, and anxiety. (Check out the AR cockroaches used to treat bug phobias, which is kind of creepy, but looks pretty effective.)

The real revolution is just beginning. AR technology will continue to become simultaneously more sophisticated, accessible and inexpensive. Since Ivan Sutherland’s first augmented reality system in 1968, researchers have tried to figure out how to make AR more portable and practical. Where once you had to essentially wear a computer on your head, the AR experience is now fits in your back pocket. Thanks in part to the availability of open source mobile platforms, developers have created a flood of fun and/or useful apps for mobile devices like iPhones and Droids as well as computers. Check out AR browsers like Layar to see how it works.

Ivan Sunderland, 1969, First Augmented Reality System

The simple tool of a camera and Internet-equipped phone or computer opens the door to a wealth of information that can be triggered directly in the environment, whether it’s operating instructions and nutritional contents labels or the location of books in a library. Many AR applications use an icon or “glif” attached to the real environment to trigger a digital file. The Hitlab video shows some great examples. Another fun site where you can print out a glif and experiment is GE’s Smart Grid. With the addition of GPS technologies, AR can provide navigation tools, such as hiking maps, identifying landmarks, and local flora and fauna. It’s a science or history teacher’s dream.

But these uses are just the start and barely touch the surface of the potential of AR applications to provide socially useful, relevant, and meaningful content.

I see AR as having tremendous social potential. As the financial and technical hurdles to produce content continues to drop, the ability of people to make and distribute content will move off YouTube and out into the world—the whole world. As a cultural bridge, AR can not only link past structures and history with present, but allows communities to have a voice and share experiences, narratives, music, and art with neighbors and visitors everywhere. As an educational aid, AR can help close the digital divide by making more learning materials, information and resources available to all learners. AR can also provide on-demand scaffolding experiences to support and reinforce active learning, self-efficacy, and create a collaborative learning environment. AR can also increase knowledge transfer, retention and the motivation to learn because not only does it place content in context, it is fun! This is why, in Imagined Communities programs, we integrate AR into a design-based and interactive learning platform.

Hitlab Overview of AR

AR brings whole new meaning to “media literacy.” The ability to use information technologies improves individual well-being because access to information supports empowerment and autonomy(BCS, 2010) . These attributes spur economic growth and civic engagement. Bringing digital content into a real environment can support personal agency and increase accountability, especially compared to the anonymity of the web. There will most certainly be issues to work out, as with all new technologies. But AR will change many things profoundly and, I believe, for the better.



BCS. (2010). The Information Divide: Can IT Make You 'Happier'? (pp. 1-16): Chartered Institute for IT.

*The virtual dressing room is based on AR technology called Fashionista developed by Zugara

Sunderland photo from Doppler, C. (n.d.). History of Mobile Augmented Reality. 2010. Retrieved May 23, 2010