Walk down the street, look at the world. This is reality. Now repeat, but wearing an odd-looking, bulky pair of glasses that place into your line of vision selective, relevant bits of data about the world; the data hovers in sight like virtual Post-it Notes, annotating your view. This is augmented reality. Glasses on, you glance to the right, at a vaguely familiar restaurant, and click a small button in your hand. Up pops text reminding you that Tom's Restaurant was the model for the diner on "Seinfeld"; not only that, but -- according to the glasses, at least -- the Morningside salad is worth ordering.
When the technology for augmented reality (AR) is fully developed, the gear won't amount to much more than glasses and some sort of small unit like a PDA. Right now, though, it consists of about 26 pounds of equipment that gets strapped to the back and to
the head, along with a shoulder-perching flying saucer-shaped antenna. The Mobile Augmented Reality System (MARS), developed at Columbia University (not far from Tom's Restaurant), has been assembled from off-the-shelf technology, including a 1GHz Dell laptop with a graphics accelerator chip and soap-bar-sized batteries to power the display glasses and the critical positioning and orientation technologies. Strap on this rig and you look like a robothief on the lam from CompUSA.
But if you do strap on this rig, as I have, you begin to understand the profound possibilities of an AR system, which can superimpose computer-generated text, graphics, 3-D animation, sound, or any other digitized data on the real world. Think of what digital detail can accomplish when it pops up at your beck and call, to identify faces, or buildings, or the parts of an engine being repaired, or the flight number of a plane in the air, or the schedule of a train in a station.
Already, AR is providing real-time battlefield data for soldiers and giving physicians the equivalent of X-ray vision during delicate operations. Data is power, and AR promises to be a powerful way to insert data into the seen world.
Much of this will have to wait until later in this decade: The MARS system I wore, the first to take AR outdoors, cannot be comfortably used for much more than a few minutes at a time, even if you don't mind the gawking of passersby. And the coordination between the wearer and the data-display system needs to be better synchronized. But the principles of AR are well demonstrated, and better-working technology is on the way.