In Everyday Life
There is no shortage of wishlist applications for personal AR, whether handheld or head-mounted. Consider the home garage of the future, for instance. While fixing your car, there will no longer be the need to pull your head in and out from under the open hood to consult a bulky, greasy manual. With AR, you'll simply slip on a tiny visor and guided repair instructions will appear next to each under-the-hood part that you gaze at: "Now that you've disconnected the radiator hose, move it to one side and unscrew the carburetor cap." Or you can retrieve the same data and navigate through parts information and replacement sales sites on the Web by merely holding a PDA-size position-sensing screen in front of any section of the engine.
And when AR headgear does shrink down to the size of common glasses, it could be a must for up-and-coming managers, to avoid career or social gaffes at business meetings and cocktail parties. Everyone will be packing extra data in their spectacles. Each time you look at someone across a conference table or a crowded room, information about who they are and what their background is could appear before your eyes. Learning how not to make it obvious that you are "scanning" a person's data will be a new business skill, like trying to look natural in front of a teleprompter. But that's just the beginning. What if you could tap into the other person's database to learn what they're seeing about you? Or what if computer hackers could download misinformation into AR systems during crucial meetings? AR will no doubt meet industrial espionage as it finds a corporate home.
The social implications of living with AR are already being explored firsthand by so-called cyborgs -- a few dozen people in North America who spend all their waking hours equipped with wearable computers. Some have been doing so since the mid-1990s, when the earliest borgs discovered one another as students at MIT.
Thad Starner, now an associate professor at Georgia Tech, was one of the first of these man/machine hybrids. He uses his self-designed wearable computer for assisted memory. In a meeting or conversation, Starner can tap the compact wired keyboard he always has in one hand to input requests for information from a hard drive or a wireless Internet connection hidden away in his network-wired vest, and see it displayed in a tiny square mounted in his prescription-lens glasses. Starner adopts pensive looks and purposeful shrugs to cue others that he's accessing information and not just being inattentive.
If Starner uses AR to load his world with information, Steve Mann, another of the original MIT borgs and now a computer scientist at the University of Toronto, has a program that does the opposite. Although Mann's wearable computer system provides reams of data when he asks for it, it can also block the world out with what Mann calls "diminished reality." This AR software can replace billboards, street signs, and ads on buses with stored digital images of waterfalls and other natural scenes.
Researchers in augmented reality are realistic about its timeline. After I tried on the MARS gear, Columbia's Feiner admitted it was too cumbersome for anything beyond a short test run. For now, the awkward display glasses, the constant need to focus crosshairs in a field of vision on a target or landmark, and the almost certain drift in registration make most of the augmentation an annoyance, not an asset. Still, without hesitation, Feiner asserts that it's only a matter of time before augmented reality becomes part of our daily lives. Judging from the cellphones and palm-sized organizers that are already pervading our pockets, he may well be right when he predicts: "You'll feel left out if you don't have a wearable computer to enhance your experience of the world."
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.