What Exactly is Augmented Reality?
Industry offer definitions, suggests standardization for an expanding market.
A growing number of magazines over the last several months have tapped into augmented reality with the goal of expanding the traditional print content experience with Web-based video or other electronic delivery.
Last summer, Bonnier’s Popular Science unveiled an interactive cover that allowed readers to log onto the Web site, hold up the cover to a webcam and interact with a 3-D image of wind turbines. For its December 2009 issue, Esquire featured 2-D barcodes on the cover and elsewhere inside the magazine that, when scanned by a reader’s webcam, triggered interactive video “experiences.” Time Inc.’s InStyle tied augmented reality to e-commerce, making some advertisements in its December 2009 holiday gift guide issue three dimensional.
More recently, we’ve seen Time Out New York enlisting the services of an augmented reality firm to fuse AR, mobile and GPS technologies to create a guide to drinking establishments in New York City, accessed over a user’s smartphone. And the August issue of Time Out New York Kids allows readers to use their smartphones to access a video of the cover subject, the chorus from Public School 22 in Staten Island.
But, what’s the difference between, say, Popular Science’s interactive 3-D turbine and Time Out New York Kids’ video? Is one AR and the other (TONY Kids) just 2-D image recognition? With so many examples flooding the market and so few explanations, I have to wonder: What exactly is augmented reality?
Ronald Azuma, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has researched AR technologies, defines AR as a “variation of virtual environments” that “allows the user to see the real world, with virtual objects superimposed upon or composited with the real world.” Azuma says AR systems have the following three characteristics: it combines real and virtual, is interactive in real time and is registered in 3-D.
Sounds to me like image recognition/2-D barcodes doesn’t count as AR, but Bruno Uzzan, co-founder and CEO of AR firm Total Immersion—the firm that worked with In Style on its holiday gift guide issue last year—doesn’t agree. “Augmented reality is the real-time merge between a video stream and a digital object,” he tells me. “The three parallel processes that run in real time during an AR experience are recognition, tracking and rendering. Therefore, recognition off a barcode, marker or markerless image makes up a vital portion of AR, so it is less about the differences between the two and more about their working relationship.”
Lisa Murphy, a product marketing manager at AR firm metaio, contends that its work with Time Out New York Kids is in fact an example of AR. “Many people did not see the interactive 3-D model in the demonstration video and did not try it out themselves,” she says. “And, of course, this first and very simple example is not the final benchmark for this new interface. Nevertheless we are very happy to take these small steps together with innovative companies.”
Embracing Industry-Wide Standards
AR is still an emerging market, and its major players know the rules are still being hammered out. In fact, in an effort to eliminate any confusion about what is augmented reality and what is not, Total Immersion earlier this summer came up with a logo to accompany all augmented reality applications on product packaging, advertisements, marketing materials and other relevant communications.
“With the proliferation of AR over recent times, there are some campaigns that are inevitably called AR but by definition are not,” Uzzan says. “Some of these projects simply use recognition to trigger a digital graphic, but the digital asset typically has little relevance to the target and video stream around it.”
Total Immersion’s campaign also calls for the formation of an industry-wide “AR Standards Committee” that the firm says should be charged with fostering consideration of product standards, user experience definitions, and a communications framework.
Says Uzzan: “With AR growing so rapidly from a niche application to what is being regarded as one of the most disruptive digital platforms of our era, there is an overall need for universality or standardization.” He says the AR+ logo is already being used by Total Immersion and other AR creators around the world.