augmented reality

Friday New Tools Feature: The Melding of Man, Machine, and Media

I've been writing a fair bit recently about augmented reality, which I believe has the potential to revolutionize the way we consume media and information, particularly on mobile devices. However, as has been pointed out, one of the main limitations of augmented reality technology is that you have to be looking "through" your phone for it to work.

So, while reading an article in Wired about flexible OLED screens (like the one pictured at left), this particular passage sparked my interest: 

Ultimately, OLED has potential applications far beyond HDTV. OLED displays can be printed on a flexible plastic substrate, and foldable screens with the thickness of a credit card have already been demonstrated at CES 2009. Clear OLED screens will also eventually be possible, so that a window in your house could double as a TV screen.

We've seen these screens before, but with AR on my mind, I wondered if this tech could be used to create augmented reality glasses or contact lenses, which could work as a secondary display for a mobile device. As it turns out, the folks at Wired seemed to be thinking the same thing - they had articles today about BOTH of these technologies. While the prospect of AR glasses is tantalizing (and likely not all that far off), the contact lens piece in particular caught my attention, because it represents a real blurring of the line between the biological and the technological with respect to perception and cognition. As the article explains, it also has interesting implications for mHealth, something we're excited to be working on here at NDN.  From the piece:

Scientists, eye surgeons, professors and students at the University of Washington have been developing a contact lens containing one built-in LED, powered wirelessly with radio frequency waves.

Eventually, more advanced versions of the lens could be used to provide a wealth of information, such as virtual captions scrolling beneath every person or object you see. Significantly, it could also be used to monitor your own vital signs, such as body temperature and blood glucose level.

Why a contact lens? The surface of the eye contains enough data about the body to perform personal health monitoring, according to Babak Parvis, a University of Washington professor of bionanotechnology, who is working on the project.

The augmented reality people are on board, too, and thinking even bigger. The CEO of Layar, the pre-eminent emerging augmented reality platform for mobile devices, believes that "a consumer-oriented, multipurpose lens is just one example of where augmented-reality technology will take form in the near future. [We should] expect these applications to move beyond augmenting vision and expand to other parts of the body."

The potential applications for mHealth are exciting - as one of the researchers developing these lenses explains,

A contact lens with augmented-reality powers would take personal health monitoring several steps further, Parvis said, because the surface of the eye can be used to measure much of the data you would read from your blood tests, including cholesterol, sodium, potassium and glucose levels.

However, the most radical part of this technology may not be its health applications - we've seen artificial organs employed to help sick people - but the way that it is being employed to expand the capacaties of healthy people in exciting ways, adding new capabilities that no human ordinarily possesses.

New Tools Update: Augmented Reality Going Mainstream?

I've written about how I think augmented reality could be the Next Big Thing in the development of the web, and it looks like augmented reality tech is finally starting to really catch people's attention. The front page stories in Wired and ReadWriteWeb over the last few days took in-depth looks at where this technology is going. Both articles are well worth the read. Here's an excerpt from the ReadWriteWeb piece, which looks at some of the hurdles to widespread adoption of AR:

"The internet smeared all over everything." An "enchanted window" that turns contextual information hidden all around us inside out. A platform that will be bigger than the Web. Those are the kinds of phrases being used to describe the future of what's called Augmented Reality (AR), by specialists developing the technology to enable it. Big questions remain unanswered, though, about the viability of what could be a radical next step in humanity's use of computers.

The article raises some good points, but I think that the explosive potential of this research far outweighs some of the challenges, many of which are technology-based. The iPhone will begin supporting early AR apps next month, and given Moore's law and the imminent arrival of 4G data networks, I think the widespread use of augmented reality on a range of mobile devices is, at the most, two or three years off.

Finally, just for kicks, check out this novel use of AR by the District 9 team (and if you haven't seen the movie, do yourself a favor and go check it out - the actual film is almost as good as the marketing for it).  

If you have a webcam and a printer, you can try this out for yourself here.

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