Elgan: Is augmented reality just a cheap gimmick?

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

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The augmented reality idea has been prematurely co-opted to create impressive but ultimately inferior interfaces to the viewing data that we already have access to. But that's not what augmented reality is for.

These apps aren't so much augmenting reality as they are identifying the direction of things, and adding that direction information on top of the camera view.

They don't tell you what's there. They tell you what's supposed to be there, based on the most recent database. If the object isn't permanent or correctly entered into the right database, it won't be augmented.

In other words, without object identification, augmented reality isn't really augmented reality. By layering geo-tagged data on top of a live camera feed, we're getting the look and feel of augmented reality without the ultimate benefit, which is to be able to enhance our view of the world with information about what we're looking at, regardless of location.

Augmented reality will become life-changing when it can be combined with object recognition and face recognition.

What's important to note, however, is that all of the current technologies will be useful for real augmented reality when we can get the recognition problem solved. For example, the use of location plus direction will be used to narrow down the possibilities of objects to be recognized.

Intel, for example, is working on a system for recognizing buildings by comparing the picture you take with your camera phone against a database of photos. It's actually using pattern recognition. The secret is that it only considers photos of objects near your location, as reported by your camera's GPS.

Intel's technology isn't much (and it's not available), but it's a start. In fact, hundreds of companies and universities are working on the problems that, once solved, will bring Terminator-like augmented reality to all of us. The augmented reality of the future will bring all this data to bear -- location, direction, special patterns, and pattern and facial recognition -- and combine it with innovative heads-up display technology.

Augmented reality seems to be everywhere these days. And yet it's nowhere. So enjoy these new marketing gimmicks and geolocation-based applications. But also understand that although they're called augmented reality, the real thing isn't quite a reality -- yet.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter @mike_elgan or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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