SAN FRANCISCO -- Augmented reality is what you get when you superimpose data over the physical world, and it's merely cool today. But it's already providing lots of opportunity for developers, and it's expected to become big business within the next 10 to 15 years.
Speakers at the Search Engine Strategies conference in here Thursday argued that the technology can improve decision making (realtors and others who depend on maps like it), recreate historical events, boost sales, make gaming more realistic and even save lives. (That application, which will help streamline emergency services, is still in stealth mode but is due out soon, according to Howard Ogden, who founded the software developer Augment Reality.)
There are two types of augmented reality, Ogden said: Marker-based, where a kiosk or computer screen will show a display with a marker - a Coke can, for instance -- that's inserted into the picture and augmented with 3-D; and mobile, which uses GPS satellite data and cameras and compasses to augment your surroundings with information.
"Advancement is the most rapid in mobile - there are browsers and apps you can download," Ogden said. "But right now this world is a blank canvas. It's like the early days of the World Wide Web."
Other augmented reality applications - these were shown by Lisa Murphy, a product marketing manager at Metaio -- included a box of LEGOS that reveals its contents on a kiosk screen when it's held in front of the kiosk (LEGO adopted this so customers could visualize their products, which improved sales); a virtual dressing room at J.C. Penney that lets teen-agers try on virtual clothes; and a magazine that tells you where to buy an object when you point your smart phone at it.
Applications that are coming include cheap glasses and contact lenses that will know where you are, and layer whatever's around you with information and images.
Google has been working on augmented reality since at least 2003 and has the potential to lead the field, several speakers said, although it's too early for leaders because the technology is immature - standards, for instance, are not yet set. Google has offered its Keyhole Markup Language as an open standard.
Map data, digital and graphic objects, Web pages, sound and data from sensors that feed real-time information from your environment will all contribute to augmented reality, according to Mike Liebhold, a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto who's worked at both Apple and Atari.
Facebook, Twitter and Google are all making more data available through their APIs to help with augmented reality applications, and both Apple with the iPhone and Google with Android have opened live video to the phones' cameras, which is a step toward letting the phones recognize images.
"We need a World Wide Web fixed to physical places and objects for augmented reality to work," Liebhold said.
One of Google's advantages is its ability to compare images to its vast networked library of data, which helps it to recognize objects. Google could compare a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge, for instance, with many other similar pictures.
A barrier for augmented reality is the relatively poor accuracy of civilian GPS systems -- right now they're only accurate to within 10 feet, but that's expected to change in 2014 when a new satellite is launched.
Privacy is also a concern -- the ability to recognize a face and mine for data about that person.
But the adoption of HTML 5 will help augmented reality, Liebhold said, because it provides the best chance to create a universal application that can detect any mobile client.