Augmented Reality: Seven Year Countdown, Beginning with Google Glass…

Google Glass may be pushing Augmented Reality into consumer consciousness, but many claim this is not even true AR. However, between wearable tech, the internet of things and the billion AR users predicted by 2020… is Google Glass just the tip of the iceberg? And where does it all go from here? Kathryn Cave investigates…

Google Glass may be pushing Augmented Reality into consumer consciousness, but many claim this is not even true AR. However, between wearable tech, the internet of things and the billion AR users predicted by 2020… is Google Glass just the tip of the iceberg? And where does it all go from here? Kathryn Cave investigates…

I'm sitting in an office in Staines pondering Augmented Reality, the science that supplements reality with computer-generated sound, graphics or other information. On the other side of the wall, in the conference room, animated Sales training is taking place. I consider jamming in the headphones to block out actual reality… then decide to opt for a straw poll of the Operations team on Google Glass - the poster child of AR - instead.

I feel a bit silly as I stride over to the bank of desks at the far side of the room, “Umm...” I begin, “What do you all think of Google Glass?” It’s an odd question and I rapidly realise that straw polling was maybe not the way to go.  Yet following the massive media hype and $1,500 price tag I’m interested to know what normal people think, especially when they’re not blinded by the “weirdness” of the glasses themselves. The reaction is not particularly positive, although everyone would like to give them a bash: “Where would I wear them?” asked Kristian. It is a good point and I’m not sure how to respond, “Maybe on holiday?” he suggests, sceptically answering his own question, “but I could get the same information from my mobile.

“People could take a picture of you and put it on Facebook without you knowing,” Brooke exclaims in horror when I explain a bit more about what they do. “But that's no different from now,” adds Belinda. And she’s right of course, these devices may have sparked yet another privacy furore but today anyone can be photographed unawares and that snap can be instantly uploaded onto social media via a smartphone.  But has this really got anything to do with Augmented Reality?

I return to my desk none the wiser for all my straw polling.  In the conference room next door the sound of whooping and hollering is getting louder. The Sales team are bursting in and out uttering sounds of horror at seeing themselves on film. Feels like a Google Glass moment. Then I remember, of course, training - now that is an area where Google Glass can help. Well, according to Google anyway.

The company released a film of Tennis pro Bethanie Mattek-Sands, using Google Glass to train in the run up to Wimbledon and made a big deal about the benefits. Looking at the film though, it mostly seems to consist of Mattek-Sands wearing white versions of the specs (to match Wimbledon branding), the device flashing up a check-list to ensure she has packed her supplements and her filming herself playing tennis via the glasses. None of these things were impossible before Google’s glasses happened along… and as Extreme Tech points out, there are comparable devices out there - only they’re much cheaper.  

Hmmm - I drop a note in an Augmented Reality forum on LinkedIn asking for professionals’ view. An IT Architecture Analyst responds:  “To me, Google Glasses… present no real advancement. They merely display information that is related only to the date-time and GPS location. Not to what is really out there.” 

What Augmented Reality Means Today

There appears to be a lot of debate about what Augmented Reality actually means.  James Fahey suggests on his blog, that a good definition of AR would be:  “Augmented Reality (AR) is the artificial, seamless, and dynamic integration of new content into, or removal of existing content from, perceptions of reality.” He makes the distinction that the best practical AR today “is still the yellow first down line used in TV broadcasts of American football games, even though this implementation of AR dates from the late 1990′s and makes very little money.” He continues: “Examples of AR implementation that are more fashionable and better fit generally used definitions of AR are the iPhone app Star Walk and the Starbuck’s promotional app used around Valentine’s Day in 2012.”

There is a fairly general consensus that Google Glass doesn’t really count. In one link I’m sent, Layar R&D lead Ronald van der Lingen and CTO Dirk Groten hack away at Google Glass to see what they can discover. They conclude: “No, true augmented reality is not possible on Glass at the moment. And no, the current Mirror API will not enable an AR platform like Layar (or any other AR platform) to provide a good user experience to enrich the real world.” 

“Currently [AR] is only being used for commercial scenarios, related to marketing, gaming and the like. It is still going to be like that for a while," the IT Architecture Analyst tells me, "All augmented reality frameworks and APIs point at solving easy functional cases, such as displaying animated content over a real camera feed or image. This is a rather simple application.”

Evidence suggests then, that the true face of Augmented Reality has not yet arrived. However, numerous different consumer options are springing up left right and centre.  “[There are] lots of ideas, [we’re] not short of ways of using it,” Robert Youngjohns told me recently in regard to HP Autonomy’s AR solution Aurasma:  “Like any new technology the challenge will be what the final commercial deployment is… and I see that as some way out.”  

Yet the way these ideas are entering the consumer sphere cover a cross section of different areas, from apps that offer expert narration over historical sites, to an invisible art show which uses Aurasma to allow visitors to view material; right through to the Metaio partnership with ST-Ericsson that provides “the world’s first augmented reality chipset for smartphones,” and following which Peter Meier, Chief Technology Officer of Metaio said: “The AR Engine will do for augmented reality what the GPU did years ago for the gaming industry.”

Interestingly, despite its futuristic image Augmented Reality is a term that already has some negative connotations. Dekko, for example, a start-up which describes itself as a “real world operating system” told the Guardian in May: "We're really trying to avoid the term 'augmented reality'. If you're a PhD in computer science or have worked in the space, you understand it. For 99% of people it's confusing. If they've had any experience with AR, it's probably been a bad experience." But for all this Augmented Reality is still probably one of the most exciting things around and sits at the forefront of tech…

A Billion Users Predicted By 2020

Former Nokia executive and Mobile analyst Tomi Ahonen recently predicted that AR will be adopted by a billion users by 2020. Intel is putting $100 million into “perceptual computing,” the “next-generation user interfaces such as touch, gesture, voice, emotion sensing, and image recognition.” Whilst Dave Lorenzini, founder of and former director at, now known as Google Earth, told CNET recently: “You'll get 20/20, perfectly augmented vision by 2020, with movie-quality special effects blended seamlessly into the world around you. The effects will look so real, you'll have to lift your display to see what's really there. There's more of the world than meets the eye, and that's what's coming.”

Partially driven by the hype around high profile devices like Google Glass and partially driven by the meteoric rise of the technology itself, interest in Augmented Reality is going up across all spheres. Yet as the IT Architecture Analyst stresses: “AR has still a long way to go before striking its true potential…. the future will be based on a true collaboration, between the AR interface itself and a cloud of databases, that will enable the users to actually recognize every object on their sight, and display live information.”

As I emerge from my own little world of Augmented Reality, I realise that everything has gone quiet. The sound from the conference room next door has stopped without my realising it… and it’s time to face the tedious reality of a crowded train journey home.  Forget all the funky stuff - what I’d really like is a device to make that painful experience better…


By Kathryn Cave, editor, IDG Connect