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The missing 'links': Looking towards an augmented reality

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  • 'Right-clicking' on objects in the real world for extra information a possibility
  • Augmented reality (AR) is next frontier for digital technology
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By Steve Mollman
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(CNN) -- You probably arrived here via a hyperlink. We hardly think about it now, but the hyperlink is a neat trick. It turns a word in a browser into an object that leads to more information.

Looking to the future: A visor that gives you reality, but with added extras and info, and an 'augmented reality.'

Once you start "linking around," it gets addictive. Some suggest that all the hopping from one link to another influences how we think, making it harder to concentrate for long periods. (Read a novel lately?)

Some wish they could link outside of Web browsers. One blogger wrote she wants to "right-click" on people to discreetly learn more about them. (This after an event where she ignored someone she admires, not realizing who he was.)

A few emerging technologies aim to make more objects -- both in real life and in computers -- behave like hyperlinks. An upcoming version of the program Hyperwords, now limited to web browsers, will work with any open window on your computer.

The program is like hyperlinking on steroids -- combined with right-clicking on steroids. For example, highlight "100" and -- within the right-click menu -- convert that figure from miles to kilometers, or Fahrenheit to Celsius. Select the word "camera" for an in-place translation into Korean or French, or be taken to the Wikipedia entry for camera.

You could do all this manually at various web sites, but the program reduces the tedium and thus encourages you to explore.

It "allows all words to be associative in whatever way the reader feels is useful at the time," explains Hyperwords founder Frode Hegland.

Hyperwords is a great tool, but it works only on computers. Why can't real-world objects receive a similar treatment?

Consider a movie poster. Why can't you click on it to bring up reviews, show-times and theater locations? In Japan and now other countries, two-dimensional "QR codes" found on everyday objects allow for something like this.

It's easy; take a picture of the code with your camera-phone and you're provided online information about that object, which you view on the phone's screen.

But why can't any real-world object -- with or without a code -- be enriched by virtual information, accessible through a cell phone screen, a visor, or, looking even further into the future, contact-lens displays?

On an experimental tour of Atlanta's historic Oakland Cemetery, the tombstones "talk." Using a high-end cell phone, you can hear the dead speak of their lives and times. Or you can read about them on your screen, or see related still images or video.

A map on your GPS-enabled phone shows which tombstones nearby are "interactive" -- no equipment is installed on the grounds.

This graveyard, then, has been enhanced, or augmented, with virtual features. The researchers behind these experiments work in the field of "augmented reality."

Who wants straight reality when you can augment it

Augmented reality (AR) -- or the "real world Web" -- has been listed by research firm Gartner as one of the most disruptive technologies companies could face over the next few years. The possibilities of AR are impressive.

During a heart transplant, identifier labels can be superimposed over the valves and chambers of a beating heart. On airplane factory floors, AR visors help electricians navigate complex mazes of wiring. Military minds dream up darker uses of AR.

Early on, consumer products might be predominantly entertainment-oriented, available not just on cell phones but also handheld gaming and other devices.

For instance there's the "magic book" idea, where every page can host a virtual 3-D pop-up that's viewable through a visor.

Or "AR tennis," where a virtual tennis court is superimposed on a real table and you view the action through your cell phone screen. The "racket" is your cell phone, which you wave through the air to hit the virtual ball. (Just don't topple your beer with your backhand.)

Offerings similar to these might reach store shelves within a year or so, believes Blair MacIntyre, who directs the Augmented Environments Lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology, which devised the cemetery experiment.

But it will be some time before you can "click on people," or stand on a street corner and look at an augmented world through your phone or visor.

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One challenge: the world shifts around a lot. Historic attractions are practical early targets because they're fixed in place, steeped in history, and have visitors. AR researchers in the UK have cited Hadrian's Wall as an example, or the historic battlefields of Europe.

Meanwhile cell phones keep getting more advanced. The cemetery experiment initially required several pieces of equipment. Now a Nokia N95 will suffice.

Soon phones "with the next generation of application processors will be able to do much more complex things since they will have more processing power, better 3-D graphics, and support better cameras," notes MacIntyre.

Meanwhile handset makers like Nokia and various communication companies are working on their own AR projects.

And MacIntyre's team, along with others, hope to create a widespread AR "player" for cell phones.

MacIntyre foresees the need for something like the web's HTML (hypertext markup language) so that AR content can cross platforms -- perhaps "ARML" for "augmented reality markup language."

As with HTML, it would allow for links that anyone can follow -- but starting from the real world.

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