View not exciting you?
Slip these on for a new way of seeing thingsFeatured July 13 Words by Andrew Hankinson
Imagine you're walking on Westminster Bridge in London,” says Professor Dimitrios Buhalis. “Through your glasses, you are able to see virtual boats that recreate the dynamics of the Thames from past times. If you like, you can even superimpose a wireframe [a 3D graphic] and have a look inside them.
“A virtual arrow directs you to the best place for taking panoramic photographs. Your glasses can also control your view of the scenery, so you adjust the colour of the sky. While you walk, you push away virtual advertisements scattered on the ground...”
Sound like some crazy future life? In fact, this future - or a good portion of it - is already upon us. It's all part of an augmented reality (AR) revolution, which is bringing with it a brave new world, especially in travel.
According to experts like Buhalis, who is director of Bournemouth University's eTourism Lab, AR could be the greatest thing to happen to tourism since the passenger jet. It could give us dynamic insight into cities, make us all smarter and keep us continually clued in.
Or it might just be the worst thing to happen, making the experience of being a tourist so unbearable you never want to be in another museum, gallery or other visitor hotspot again. Regardless of how you feel about it, it's happening anyway, so you might as well get used to it.
But what is AR exactly? Well, in its simplest sense, AR enhances - or augments - a real-world environment with graphics, audio or other computer-generated data. Currently, the best way to experience it is with a tablet or smart phone. You fire up an app, hold the device in front of a real object, and you'll see the various augmentations overlaid through the viewfinder. If you're walking, these graphics may well change as you move.
The technology is becoming massive business, and tech firms such as Apple, Google, Nokia and Samsung have been investing heavily to create apps that bring the world to life. Professor Buhalis predicts it will eventually become part of our everyday lives - “like breathing” - and the tourist market is so far leading the way.
According to his research, among the most successful of thousands of AR apps are Yelp, which annotates the feed through your viewfinder with information on different businesses; Word Lens, which translates any text you point at, and Nearest Tube, which superimposes directions at street level to the closest London Underground station. “They mark a new era for tourism,” says Buhalis. “We will witness truly ubiquitous computing, where information is seamlessly interwoven with the physical world.”
While some are general tools for travel, others are specific to certain cities: Berlin Wall 3D rebuilds the Berlin Wall in front of your eyes, while the Dutch UAR app superimposes past and future architecture onto current streetscapes.
So far, so exciting. But until now, it's been hampered by cumbersome hardware: walking along with an iPad in front of you is tricky and not exactly subtle. However, the next generation of AR devices has arrived, heralding a new era of accessibility.
Users - who have paid $1,500 (€1,145) each for the privilege - are already trialling Google Glass, a wearable computer that looks like spectacles, through which they can see the world overlaid with all sorts of extra information. Further developments of Google Glass are being worked on by a top-secret department, Google [x] which, according to Businessweek magazine, spent $6.8 billion on research and development in 2012. Rivals include Takahito Iguchi's Telepathy One, which has audio as well as visual augmentation, and can morph images into manga-style cartoons; and Steve Mann's Eye Glass (see p96), which uses an ‘Augmediated Reality' system. Once we're all wearing them, we'll see the world like The Terminator saw it, through an interface of graphics and text. Only, instead of picking targets, we'll be learning about, say, the history of Rome as we walk the city's streets.
One of the more interesting pioneers is artist Matthew Maxwell, who studied fine art at Oxford University and became a digital creative director. Back in April, his first AR project, Singing Ribbons, opened at London's Coningsby Gallery. There, visitors were invited to point their phones at pictures of military ribbons, each of which had a different accompanying musical score. “In the exhibition, you have the little Singing Ribbons app and when you look at the pictures through your phone, they jump off and come to life,” Maxwell explains. “They actually expand and turn into 3D shapes which sing to you.
“It's like Disney, quite Fantasia. It's really the sense of surprise that makes it work. As is the point with AR, you're looking at the world through the prism of this phone - but you can still see the world behind it - and in the phone it's turned into something else. It sets off quite a mental confusion.
“My initial idea was that they would all be sort of singing at the same time, but at different points in the score and in different keys,” continues Maxwell. “It would be like a cacophonous birdsong, but of course phones are quite quiet and humans are quite loud, so it works better if you're in a silent gallery or you've got headphones on.”
This is one downside of AR: with any audio app we will either aggravate each other or, through the use of headphones, become isolated. Other downsides include data charges, battery life, small images and text. Arguably, the worst wrinkle is that everyone could be so absorbed by AR that they miss the visceral experience of just being near something interesting. So, will this new technology become a barrier between us and reality?
“Oh, no, that would be horrible,” says Karen Forbes, a professor of art at Edinburgh University and a global expert in AR. “The idea's not to take away from the direct experience of seeing an object. It's about understanding it better.” Forbes has worked with some of the world's most famous museums to create AR exhibits, including London's V&A for the David Bowie Is exhibition, where line drawings of Bowie's costumes appear in three dimensions; and Edinburgh University's Museum of Anatomy, which included AR heads. Her role reflects a growing interest by museums in AR-enhanced exhibitions. She's also created a book, Site Specific, through which readers can explore modern architecture, including the Lausanne Art Museum and Oslo's Opera House. Holding a device over the page triggers a 3D image that can be explored like a model. This ‘jumping out' of the object from the page is startling to the human eye - Forbes has seen people, even scientists, try to touch the space between the screen and the page.
“We're still discovering the potential of AR,” she says. “It's a really exciting way of explaining information. You can have sound files, video and photographic archives attached. It will have great repercussions for the whole experience of a place. There's even a museum we're in discussions with in the Netherlands that wants to show on the outside of the building what's on the inside.”
Other companies that have seen the potential include Lonely Planet, which created Compass Guides for 25 cities.
Users can see their surroundings annotated with maps, information and expert advice (“stuck like Post-it Notes”, according to the Lonely Planet innovations manager). Or there's the Holiday Inn, Kensington: during the 2012 London Olympics, guests could watch virtual athletes doing tricks in the lobby.
Professor Buhalis is keen to stress the revolution isn't in full flow yet and The Guardian's apps expert, Stuart Dredge, is even more definitive: “I've yet to see an AR app that does its job so much better than a decent guidebook that it makes up for the battery and data-charge issues. For now, the AR market as a whole is really being driven by technology companies, rather than consumer demand.”
OK, so none of us are begging for AR yet. In its current form, it rests precariously between being a technological marvel and mere geek chic. Once devices catch up, however, it's hard to believe it won't be huge, especially with Google in the driving seat. So enjoy basic reality... while you still can.