Elgan: Is augmented reality just a cheap gimmick?

No. But most existing augmented reality apps are little more than parlor tricks.

Augmented reality, long a staple of science fiction, is here, there and everywhere. A search on Google News brings up nearly 700 recent stories about the technology and the companies that claim to offer it.

In a nutshell, augmented reality is the addition of computer-generated content to our field of vision that tells us more about what we see.

At some point in the future, we can expect car windshields, scuba masks, even eyeglasses to feed us information about what we see.

For example, a windshield augmented-reality system might recognize buildings and identify them for us on the windshield itself, along with turn-by-turn directions, information from road signs and warnings about dangers ahead. Eyeglasses might use a hidden camera on the inside of our glasses, visible only to us, to identify people and tell us their names and when we last met them.

Remember "Terminator vision"? The Terminator movies showed us the world from Arnold Schwarzenegger's robot perspective. Vehicles, people and objects were instantly identified right in the field of view. There was analysis, too: The robot calculated probabilities, such as threats and casualties, in real time and displayed that information over what he was looking at.

Someday we'll all be able to do something like that. In the meantime, augmented reality is a solution in search of a problem.

A start-up called Atomic Greetings offers "augmented reality greeting cards." You design your own card and upload a video to go with it. The company sends the paper card by mail. When the recipient holds it up to a PC webcam, your video appears to pop out of the card. But only on-screen.

Olympus is promoting its PEN E-PL1 camera with augmented reality. By holding a special card up to a webcam, a computer-generated version of the camera appears on-screen. There is no apparent benefit to the gimmick, other than to show you how awesome you'll look holding the camera.

An interactive advertising and marketing agency called Zugara offers a wide variety of augmented reality promotions to clients, many of which involve showing things on people's webcams that aren't really there. The best of the lot is an application that simulates the trying-on of clothing for online stores. Buttons float in space around the user. By passing a hand through one of them, the user activates the button (for functions like cycling through styles, colors and so on).

BMW markets its Z4 model with augmented reality. You print out a special symbol. When you point your webcam at the printout, the car magically appears on it. You can then grow or shrink the car on-screen and drive it around on your desk. Toyota and Audi are running similar promotions.

One of the earliest commercially available augmented reality tricks comes from the baseball trading card company Topps, starting about a year and a half ago. Topps 3D Live baseball cards show a 3-D version of each card's player when held up to a webcam.

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