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“Preparing Us For AR”: the value of illustrating of future technologies

When I wrote about Text In The World over on my personal blog a few weeks ago, our colleague Matt Jones left a comment:

“preparing us for AR” (augmented reality)

And this got me thinking about the ways that design and media can educate us about what future technologies might be like, or prepare us for large paradigm shifts. What sort of products really are “preparing” us for Augmented Reality?

A lot of consumer-facing the output of Augmented Reality at the moment tends to focus on combining webcams with specifically marked objects; Julian Oliver’s levelHead is one of the best-known examples:

But when AR really hits, it’s going to be because the technology it’s presented through has become much more advanced; it won’t just be webcams and monitors, but embedded in smart displays, or glasses, or even the smart contact lenses of Warren Ellis’ Clatter.

So whilst it’s interesting to play with the version of the technology we have today, there’s a lot of value to be gained from imagining what the design of fully-working AR systems might look like, unfettered by current day technological constraints. And we can do that really well in things like videos, toys, and games.

Here’s a lovely video from friend and colleague of Schulze & Webb, Timo Arnall:

Timo’s video imagines using an AR map in an urban environment. I particularly like how he emphasises that there are few limitations on scale when it comes to projecting AR – and the most convenient size for certain applications might be “as big as you can make it”. Hence projecting the map across the entire pavement.

Here’s another nice example: the Nearest Tube application for the iPhone 3GS:

This is perhaps a more exciting interpretation of what AR could be, and what AR devices might be (not to mention a working, real-world example): the iPhone becomes a magic viewfinder on the world, a Subtle Knife that can cut through dimensions to show us the information layer sitting on top of the world. It helps that it’s both useful and pretty, too.

Games are a great way of getting ready for the interfaces technologies like AR afford. Here’s a clip I put together from EA Redwood Shores’ Dead Space, illustrating the game UI:

Dead Space has no game HUD; rather, the HUD is projected into the environment of the game as a manifestation of the UI of the hero’s protective suit. It means the environment can be designed as a realistic, functional spaceship, and then all the elements necessary for a game – readouts, inventories, not to mention guidelines as to what doors are locked or unlocked – can be manifested as overlay. It’s a striking way to place all the game’s UI into the world, but it’s also a great interpretation of what futuristic, AR user interfaces might be a bit like.

Finally, a toy that never fails to make me smile – the Tuttuki Bako:

This is Matt Jones playing with a Tuttuki Bako in our studio. You place your finger into the hole in the box, and then use it to control a digital version of your finger on screen in a variety of games. It’s somewhat uncanny to watch, but serves as a great example of a somewhat different approach to augmented realities – the idea that our bodies could act as digital prosthetics.

All these examples show different ways of exploring an impending, future technology. Whilst much of the existing, tangible work in the AR space is incremental, building upon available technology, it’s likely that the real advances in it will be from technology we cannot yet conceive. Given that, it makes sense to also consider concepting from a purely hypothetical design perspective – trying things out unfettered by technological limitations. The technology will, after all, one day catch up.

What’s exciting is that this concept and design work is not always to be found in the work of design studios or technologists; it also appears in software, toys, and games that are readily consumable. In their own way, they are perhaps doing a better job of educating the wider world about AR (or other new technologies) than innumerable tech demos with white boxes.

After this:

19 Comments and Trackbacks

  • 1. Tom said on 6 August 2009...

    I’d disagree with the Comment on Nearest Tube app – I think the real smarts is when they make a BT version of an eye piece headset that links to the iPhone for an app. Why have a 3.5 inch window into the world when you as mentioned above go for a much larger scale. And it’s not like it’s that technologically hard to do – add the accelerometers and so forth into the glasses and use those signals not he ones from the iPhone, but use the iPhone gps location. The iPhone as the interface to an acessory that has an app is a trend we haven’t really seen yet, but i’d predict is going to become big.
    TomTom is just one example. Fingers crossed there are several embargoed (e.g. Due to the health and exercise drive iTunes is going to take come September when the Touch and iPods are released)

  • 2. MEMEOVORE said on 6 August 2009...

    Actually, I would suggest the Vernor Vinge 2006 Novel (2007 Hugo Winner) “Rainbow’s End” as the bigger tipping point of AR Contacts over Warren Ellis’ Doktor Sleepless (2007). 2007 also saw Charles Stross release his AR novel “Halting State”, an absolute must read for everyone involved in or passionate about the possibilities of intelligent contacts, AR enhanced LARPs, etc. FYI.

  • 3. Matt said on 6 August 2009...

    Some nice examples. Yes, the world of games and toys if often the place where new interface technologies appear. In the long view, I wonder if “preparing us for AR” is a generational blip. At birth a child may assume that anything is possible: a handheld projector holds no special amazement for my three-year-old. Through childhood we are trained, with toys among other things, to limit our expectations about how objects should behave. My six-year-old, who has been trained by the Wii, waves other remote controls about in a vain attempt to use gestures. My nine-year-old, more worldliwise, mocks him for it. We arrive in the world AR-ready, it’s just that present-day technology beats it out of us.

  • 4. ian worley said on 6 August 2009...

    Great stuff boys! I am glad to see you are as excited about this stuff as I am. We should meet up for a drink and talk about this exciting new world 😉


  • 5. Adam Nieman said on 6 August 2009...

    One of the most exciting opportunities for AR comes from turning it on its head. Instead of adding a layer of data to the real world, use the real world itself as a ‘canvas’ for data. I have taken to calling this ‘reality augmented data’ or RAD. Humans are already pretty good at making sense of the real world, but we are still rubbish at making sense of information such as statistics. We can use our real-world skills and the real world itself to help us with this.

    The only RAD project I know of is one I’m working on called ‘Carbon Quilt’ ( – still very much a prototype). The idea is to make greenhouse gas emissions and accumulated greenhouse gases visible by displaying them as concrete entities (actual volumes) and placing them in environments that are meaningful to viewers (politicians, citizens, energy analysts, consumers, etc.) Today we are using Google Maps but the plan is to use AR to bring this carbon data to life wherever the user happens to be. So, for example, you will see your daily emissions next to your house or filling up your living room in real-time, or a company’s emissions hovering over the company headquarters.

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