SXSW: Augmented reality and the outer Web

By Mark Sullivan, PCWorld

The outer Web. What does that mean?

I heard the term for the first time at an "Augmented Reality" panel here at the Austin Convention Center today, and thought it to be a nifty handle for a technology that'll probably be big in the near future. It's also a clever way of looking at what augmented reality, or "AR" might mean.

Augmented reality refers to technology (mobile devices, in-windshield displays, etc.) that can display information from the Web on top of objects in the real world. Point your iPhone up at a tall building, and your augmented reality mobile app will overlay all kinds of information about the building (what's inside it, its history, whatever) seen on the screen of your mobile device.


So the term "outer Web" means the extension of the information outside the normal confines of broadband networks and into the real world, mainly via the screens of wirelessly-connected mobile devices. That idea is on a lot of app developers' minds here at the conference.

Augmented reality (AR) is not a new concept. Mobile apps like the one described above have been available for some time now, and one good example is Layar, which runs on the iPhone and Google's Android. The Gartner Group said way back in May 2008 that AR would be one of the top ten most disruptive technologies between 2008 and 2012.

During the panel here I saw numerous applications of AR that are happening already today. There were a couple of applications that seemed true to the concept and actually useful. But I was surprised at how many of the uses cases I saw were "augmented reality" in name only, and mostly smoke and mirrors.

Yes, there is a little bit of snake oil salesmanship going on among AR technology companies as they try to find a place for the concept in the real world. Remember how ad agency people a few years ago were falling all over themselves to get the major brands some space in Second Life. You know, just to get in on the ground floor of something that's going to be HUGE? Well the same thing will happen with augmented reality, or the Outer Web, if you will.

Lego has made new boxes for its products that, when held up to a computer with a webcam, show the contents inside the box in 3D. That could have been done just as easily with a Flash video.

The presenter here expected oohs and aahs when she showed a kiosk at a hockey rink that displayed an image of the person standing in front of it with a team hockey helmet on their head. Whatever. That's just a webcam trick, not really AR.

Adidas has come out with a line of shoes that when taken out of the box and placed in front of a webcam become game controllers. You point the shoe at the screen and move it to aim your gun, while your enemy, the Stormtroopers, shoot at you. (See the demo below). OK, but that's just a novelty, and probably something you might try once, and never do again. The marketing geniuses at Adidas get some geek cred; and maybe it really does help sell shoes.

But yeah, I also saw some new AR apps that seemed very promising.

Some automakers like Volkswagon and BMW have handed over the CAD (computer aided design) of their autos so that mechanics can see exactly what is where in the cars, and even see instructions on how to make repairs. All this is visible as an overlay over the image of the car seen through goggles worn by the mechanic.


And AR apps will be most compelling on mobile devices. Right now the focus is on smartphones. San Francisco-based developer Metaio is here touting its new mobile AR platform, Junaio, which overlays data, graphics and text over the world as seen through your smartphone's camera. The app does such things as give you the nearest subway stop (and time till the next train), and can guide you to the nearest pub.

When your friends are also using Junaio, it gets more interesting. If I knew my friend was coming to meet me here at this Starbucks, I could leave a 3D object for her to see (through her phone) outside the front door, welcoming her to the spot. If we were going to see a movie after, I might add a link to a preview clip to my 3D object. I could also leave 3D objects in front of all the restaurants in town that I have liked.

A number of other AR apps have been built for the iPhone and Android mobile platforms.

What will happen as the technology gets better and faster, as people begin to "get it," and as AR moves to better screens like the one on the iPad? Like the OLED screen inside my windshield screen? Or like the tiny screen built into the pupil of my left eye?

It may go nowhere, of course. But I think we are more likely to accept a new technology that puts real-time Web intelligence in close proximity with the activities of our real lives, than we are to having our senses consumed by some "virtual reality" experience like Second Life. I'm going to predict now that in five years augmented reality will have found its way into mainstream culture, while Second Life will remain a novelty and a side show.

Reprinted with permission from


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