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Issue: Volume 34 Issue 6: (June/July 2011)

Reality Check

By: Karen Moltenbrey
It often takes a confluence of remarkable discoveries to result in a technological achievement that will impact our daily life. Consider, for instance, augmented reality, which melds a digitally re-created environment with the real world. In 1968, Evans & Sutherland created the first augmented-reality system that used an optical head-mounted display with mechanical and ultrasonic trackers. Here, computers processed and displayed a simple wireframe depiction of the environment in real time. Eventually, computer processing became more powerful, tracking more precise, and graphics more realistic—and scientific and military applications took advantage of this confluence of technologies. Some years later, ARToolKit, an open-source solution utilizing computer vision algorithms and video tracking libraries for calculating camera position, negated the need for expensive hardware and software, making the technology more accessible. The most recent game changer for AR occurred with the Internet revolution, as users with fast computers and web­cams began linking to the Internet using broadband or even fiber connections. Then came the gaming revolution a la the Wii and Kinect, which made object tracking popular, inexpensive, and fun for everyone. When the mobile revolution kicked in and smartphones became the norm rather than a luxury, well, that marked the tipping point for the technology.


Scion deployed an augmented-reality driving game as part of a multimedia campaign to attract younger buyers.

Today, augmented reality continues to be a cutting-edge computer technology used in medical and scientific research, architectural visualization, military and emergency training, and simulations (flying and driving, for instance). It can also be found at the center of various forms of entertainment: theme-park rides, museums, and video games, to name a few. It is also becoming a new component of consumer marketing. A few years ago, Total Immersion, which offers geo-specific and military-based simulations, began introducing its technology to the general public. Following some flashy stage demonstrations at CES and a fun application at the Olympics, Total Immersion married the high-tech world of augmented reality with the low-tech world of baseball cards when it teamed with Topps, bringing AR to consumers by letting them play ball with virtual MLB players. Several months later, Total Immersion teamed up with McDonald’s on a global promotion for the blockbuster feature Avatar, allowing Big Mac purchasers to explore the virtual world of Pandora. More recently, other companies have started to embrace AR and its marketing potential, including Nestle and Toyota, both of which are using the technology to appeal to the Y and I (Internet) generations’ love affair with all things digital. A good marketing move, since this demographic has strong buying influence, which adds up to real, not virtual, dollars.

–Karen Moltenbrey
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