Until recently, augmented reality existed mainly in movies like The Minority Report and computer science labs at universities, where technologists grappled with comically clunky headgear.
Now, however, several new Web and mobile applications are changing minds and helping to bring AR into the mainstream.
In essence, AR holds the promise of marrying the digital and physical worlds by taking complex data and overlaying it with views of the real world via Webcam technology and multiple screens.
"The last thing I can [recall] getting this much hype is Second Life," said Matt Szymczyk, CEO of Zugara, a Los Angeles-area digital agency. "But I think there will be more practical uses to this."
The latest wave of AR is mining the Internet's rich deposits of user data to overlay with views of the real world. While most AR implementations have thus far relied on hard-copy printouts, advances in cellphones, particularly the latest release of the iPhone, hold hope of making it a handy technology.
Zugara is dabbling in this area with its Webcam Social Shopper app. The prototype, which the shop created as a test for clients, lets consumers "try on" clothing—via their Webcams and monitors—as if they were in a store. In a twist reminiscent of Minority Report, users can switch to new outfits by motioning with their hands. They can also share their outfits through social networks like Facebook.
The app attempts to solve a problem with real monetary consequences: the overwhelming majority of visitors to online retailers don't make purchases. One of the reasons: they're unsure if the clothes will look good on them.
"We wondered where the utility aspect is" with AR, said Szymczyk. "We wanted to bridge the gap between online shopping and offline shopping."
Szymczyk points to a confluence of factors making AR inevitable. Webcams, once rare, are now quite common and a standard feature in many computers.
What's more, developers can skip requiring a separate user plug-in by employing the latest version of Flash, which is installed on nearly 90 percent of computers.
Zugara consciously attempted to create an app that was useful. To date, most brand AR applications have centered on immersive entertainment experiences, said Lars Bastholm, chief digital creative officer at Ogilvy North America. Many were entered in the Cyber category at the Cannes Lions competition, where Bastholm was jury president, yet few offered tangible benefits to consumers beyond a gee-whiz factor.
"For now, it's mostly the newest toy in the playpen," he said. "Everyone is excited by what it can be. A lot of the stuff now is a little gimmicky and not that useful."
Some of the executions have an undeniable wow factor. GE generated buzz with its Smart Grid site. It showed off the power of GE renewable technology by creating a hologram of windmills through the use of a Webcam and paper printouts. Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and North Kingdom created it.
Similarly, Topps used AR to bring its trading cards to life. Holding up a specially marked card in front of a Webcam made a virtual representation of the baseball player in question appear and show off his skills.
The biggest hope for the field moving into useful, mainstream applications is in the mobile arena. Acrossair created a mini sensation with the release of a video clip showing its mobile subway finder. It uses the new iPhone's video camera and location technology to provide layer-on-top information about the nearest subway. Users can hold their phones up and get directions. This combination, according to Marc Lucas, executive creative director at Razorfish, holds the promise of being the "decoder ring" for any number of applications.
Other AR mobile apps are springing up. One iPhone app shows where nearby Twitterers are located. A Dutch software developer has a mobile browser that displays local business information while a user scans an environment.
While these types of mobile uses hold promise, Szymczyk said they would run up against one of the oldest limitations: battery life. Using a phone's video camera for long periods will bleed its power dry. That won't stop more applications from agencies wanting to try out the latest tech, predicted Bastholm.
"There's no doubt augmented reality as overlay in the real world will be the biggest craze in the next year," he said.
--Nielsen Business Media