Far from our usual idea of virtual reality, and its associations with heavy head gear and Disney quest-esque challenges, augmented reality technology markets itself instead as a way to enhance reality, rather than a means of trading it in for an hour or two of competitive alien combat or space travel (and some inevitable motion sickness). In other words, AR is a way to mix together the virtual and the real, in the hope of somehow making our day to day lives a little easier. The tech has been increasing in popularity, and commercial viability, with its rapid development made possible by a range of funding rounds run by the start-ups harnessing it in their industries.
Using Google (or any search engine tossed into the dusty forgotten corners of the cyber attic alongside Ask Jeeves) is almost a reflex. The instant go-to for anything from recipes to self-diagnosis, and from online shopping to directions, it has come to represent the brain of our devices; the indispensable, invisible core that none of us could really do without. Yet augmented reality technology effectively takes this a step further, in actually recognising the physical world, and on some level, understanding it.
There’s a wealth of information swimming around in cyberspace, an unlockable world that only tech can bring to our fingertips.
Take the app ‘Blippar’ as an example, currently one of the best funded start-ups in the UK, whose CEO and founder, Ambarish Mitra, saw immediate commercial potential in the tech. On loading the Blippar website, a background slide show plays out images connoting vision, perception and creativity. So far, so contemporary. The app summarises its capacities in a very simple nutshell, stating that it can add ‘digital content’ to ‘physical objects’. In other words, it can feed us information on whichever physical real-life object we desire to know more about. Underneath, there’s a picture of an orange. If a user were to photograph the fruit on their mobile device, the app would not only recognise the image as an orange (pretty bizarre in itself), but respond with a handful of helpful orange-related information; nutritional details, nearby grocers, orange-based recipes; etcetera. In this particular case, the usefulness of Blippar probably isn’t mind-blowing, but certainly the notion at the heart of this technology is pretty revolutionary: that there’s a wealth of information swimming around in cyberspace, an unlockable world that only tech can bring to our fingertips. Indeed, the site is littered with tag lines such as ‘our eyes only see so much’.
Unsurprisingly, businesses have taken advantage of other uses of Blippar. With Maybelline getting on board in 2012, giving customers the opportunity to try out new nail varnish shades via the app, and even Justin Bieber encouraging fans to take a ‘virtual selfie’, creating even more of a buzz amongst pre-tour-going Beliebers, it definitely scores pretty highly on versatility as well as innovation.
And oddly, the app serves once again to remind us of the limits of the human brain, and the irony inherent in the development of innovative new ways to overcome these. Both the app, and the tech behind it are ones to watch for the future, both in our personal and professional spheres.