I went along to the Augmented Reality(AR) mashup event yesterday evening to see what was happening outside the education sector for augmented reality. JISC has been involved in a number of projects using smartphones and the Walking through Time project is looking at using AR to be able to show users what streets used to look like (see the project video of what the project is doing). I can see that JISC are likely to do more with AR. The uses in research, particularly, could be very exciting. Imagine an archaeology dig, for example, where you could have layer and finds information overlaid on what you were seeing through the camera on your smartphone.
The first thing that struck me about the event was the popularity and range of people there. When I arrived at 6pm, there was a queue at the reception desk of those who had turned up on the night and failed to get a place and the attendees included small private companies, large multinationals, government agencies and representatives of national interest groups.
The event had a multitude of themes running through it both in the room and on a lively Twitter backchannel (#mashupevent). I’ve tried to pick out a few of those below that I think are particularly relevant:
- What do we mean by AR? This was an interesting question because some apps are fairly close to traditional multimedia apps. It was also useful to be reminded that AR has been around for 15-20 years. The reason for the current excitement is the potential of putting it into people’s hands through their phones and laptops; devices that they have easy access to rather than expensive specialist devices that are only used for AR. The eventual definition that the meeting seemed to settle on was any application that added information to what the user was currently seeing and so augmented their reality. I think it’s going to be important to settle on one meaning and work with that but not spend too much effort getting there;
- AR has the potential to excite users because of its very visual nature. This has both an upside and a downside. What we’re seeing at the moment looks spectacular but how useful is it, which is a particular concern when we get to education? I loved what companies such as Total Immersion were doing, using 2D images on paper to trigger generation of 3D images on screen; it grabs your eye immediately. But there was a question of whether the dull but useful apps such as Connected’s education app that reads bar-codes and then triggers media launching on PlayStation Pockets (PSPs) would ultimately have more impact. My feeling is that researchers would probably want functionality first. Another interesting reflection was on not creating a PR soufflé – one company had Stephen Fry endorsing their product but still hasn’t had it approved by Apple, meaning their consumers are excited but don’t have anything to buy. I think that is equally a useful lesson to take away for JISC; if we develop some cool AR apps then we need to make sure they can be available if they are taken beyond prototype;
- AR is a medium but not an end in itself. There was a feeling that what we are seeing at the moment are more gimmicks than solid apps because the apps focus on AR. Indeed, one brand advisor is more concerned with telling companies NOT to develop an AR app for their brand! It was agreed that there needs to be a focus on solving the problem by blending AR into the solution. I think this has a lot of resonance in research applications and there is an argument to explore AR on a small scale at the moment and wait for it to mature before committing to larger projects;
- For AR to be successful, it needs to have the hardware to be able to run it. What was noted was that this did not necessarily mean having smartphones and one person even suggested that there may be AR phones. My personal feeling is that for the hardware to be rolled out on a mass scale then devices need to be cheap, they need to be carried by a large retailer and they need an indispensable AR app. A good example of how this is being done in another area is INQ’s Facebook phone, which is now being carried by a major supermarket retailer in the US;
- Data was a very interesting topic and unfortunately not one that had much discussion. AR can give a lot to the user but I think Dan Rickman, the Chair of the BCS Geospatial Group had a good point when he said that metadata would prove crucial. I think having attention data geo-located could prove immensely important, bringing space into the equation and allowing us to personalise information and bring it to the researcher based on where they are; it would also make the time dimension more valuable. There were some apps that showed how useful this could be without attention data including one that showed the nearest tube stations and directions over your cameraphone view (NearestTube by AcrossAir). This also brings up privacy and how a user controls what data they share about where they are. Again, a fairly short discussion on this at the meeting but a major issue to be addressed considering many institutions still face considerable challenges on how basic personal data is managed;
- Standards was another area that was kind of touched on. Somewhat worryingly, some of the panel felt that it was important to develop proprietary apps and then sort of get to the standards from there. I think there needs to be a bit more work here as otherwise we’re going to end up with a mess of uninteroperable apps. Sure, build the standards alongside practical experience but don’t wait until there is a wealth of practical experience and try to build from there;
An interesting comment from one of the panellists, to sum up, was ‘augmented reality is about looking through the window and not just looking at the window’. I think when we can get to that state then AR will have truly taken off. Until then, there is quite a bit more exploring to do to make it practically useful for researchers.