Augmented Reality – Even Better Than the Real Thing

  • Jan 2, 2019
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Many of our blog posts address “big picture” issues, such as ensuring a successful eCommerce launch, selecting an eCommerce solution, or integrating your CMS with an eCommerce solution. But it’s always fun to change things up and look at issues from new perspectives. There are lots of people here at ten24 who are responsible for making the magic happen every day. From time to time, we’re going to hand them the mic and ask them to talk about the issues that are near and dear to them. Everyone in this company has unique talents, strengths, and insights – we hope you’ll enjoy learning a little more about the topics that our team members are so passionate about.

Today’s post is based on a discussion we had with Kang Nam, Junior Back-End Application Developer.

Ask most people these days if they know what virtual reality (VR) is, and you’re likely to get a decent answer. They might reply that VR involves wearing a headset to experience some kind of make-believe environment or setting. Ask those same people, however, to tell you what augmented reality (AR) is, and you’ll probably hear crickets or be met with a blank stare.

But guess what? Folks just like you are probably already using simple versions of AR without even realizing it. If you find that hard to believe, then just consider the following:

  • Have you ever goofed around with those fun filters on Snapchat to give yourself bunny ears or turn your tongue into a sparkly rainbow?
  • Know anyone who was obsessed with the game, Pokémon Go?
  • Did you score tickets to U2’s 2018 eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE tour and download the companion app before you went to the concert?

If you can answer “Yes” to any of those questions, then stop right now and give yourself a little high-five, because you’ve had exposure to AR!   

As Nam explains, although VR and AR are often confused with each other or lumped in together, there’s a big difference between the two. “With VR, you’re immersed in a virtual world that completely removes you from the real one.” he says. “But it’s a whole different story with AR. At its core, AR superimposes or overlays generated content on top of the real world so you can actually interact with it.”

A passion and lots of ideas

Nam is passionate about AR. His fascination with it began when he was a college student at UMass Amherst. There, he became friends with a fellow student named Aidan Wolf, whose own interest in AR sparked Nam’s. If you’re already a fan of AR and Wolf’s name rings a bell, it’s because he’s a co-creator of Blue Sky Paint, a popular AR “social drawing” app for the iPhone that lets you use the sky as your painting canvas.

“Blue Sky Paint is a really cool app because it is ahead of its time and uses a special occlusion aware rendering technique,” Nam says. “It lets you put your digital drawings into the sky and makes your art interact with nearby, real-world items like trees, statues, and buildings.” As you physically move in, near, or around these real-world objects, parts of your sky drawings will disappear, thanks to the occlusion-aware rendering technique. The effect is that your art will look like it’s part of the sky and skyline. You can even interact and collaborate with the digital sky art of other people who have the Blue Sky Paint app. Think of it as an AR amateur artists’ collective.

Nam’s excitement about AR is palpable, and he loves to share his passion with everyone around him. In fact, he recently gave an informative presentation about AR to his ten24 colleagues. During his talk, he didn’t just explain what AR is and what it does. He also shared some of his own personal AR projects and ideas that he works on in his spare time.

Nam recognizes that the possibilities with AR could offer people with loss of peripheral vision great benefits.

“People who suffer from tunnel vision have a fixed view set that’s typically in the center of their focus,” he explains. “That limits what they can see, especially with things that are in their periphery. So I started thinking, ‘What if you could use AR and machine learning to calibrate AR capable headwear to recognize and track objects and then notify the wearer that things are coming into their peripheral vision?’”

The headwear Nam has in mind would have multiple built-in cameras that could help people with tunnel vision see to their left and right, as well as above, below, and directly ahead. Headwear that could soon be as lightweight as a pair of normal glasses. But thanks to the combination of AR and machine learning, the glasses would also be able to display comments warning the wearer about which objects are entering their field of vision, and which direction they’re coming from.

This kind of technology could also be invaluable for educational or instructional purposes. Imagine you’re an apprentice auto mechanic, for example, and you need to repair or replace a part in a car. If you’re wearing AR glasses, the instructions for the job would be built right in, and they’ll update in real time as you progress through the repair.

Such glasses are not a reality – but Nam believes they will be in the not-too-distant future. “The technology we need to make it happen is not quite there yet,” he admits. “And the price would need to be affordable enough so that the glasses could be widely available and distributed. But I think we’ll be there soon, within five years or so.”

AR for everyone

Nam’s sentiment about AR’s potential, promise, and impact is echoed by many other professionals in the industry, including Keith Curtin. He’s the founder and vice president of business development at Zappar, an AR platform and creative studio based in London, England. Curtin has already spent a significant portion of his career evangelizing for AR, and his energy and enthusiasm are contagious. “Our goal at Zappar is to democratize AR,” he says. “We want to give brands, retailers, media companies, and agencies the power to create AR experiences themselves.”

The company’s proprietary AR toolkit and platform, ZapWorks, lets users take a digital object and place it into their real-world environment, where it can be tracked so that people can interact with it. Turnkey, drag-and-drop capabilities mean that no coding skills are required. “It’s kind of like WordPress for AR,” Curtin quips. The company also embeds its AR software development kit into third party apps.

“I really do think AR is the future,” he adds. “Right now it’s like we’re creating the Web all over again. We’re taking the digital world offline and connecting it to the physical world. Imagine taking all the physical objects in the world and connecting them to the relevant online content that exists for each object. Combining AR with machine learning, artificial intelligence, eye tracking, and computer vision has huge, almost limitless, potential.”

For example, retailers can already embed an AR gaming app into their customer loyalty program that will act as a tool to drive purchases and conversion. Every time customers play a game using the app, they earn and accumulate virtual points. Those game points then transfer into actual loyalty points that customers can redeem toward real-world products. When they purchase the products, they scan their app at the cash register. This, in turn, means the company gets valuable data that includes when the customer engaged with the product, when it happened, and how much time they spent doing it.

There are plenty of practical applications too. AR can be especially helpful to a sales representative whose product is large, cumbersome, and expensive to ship for a demo (such as a radiation machine that hospitals use for cancer treatment). Using AR combined with 3D technology, that sales rep could use a simple postcard that, when scanned, brings a life-sized, 3D projection of the object to the real-world environment in which it will reside. The sales rep and hospital staff, viewing the projection through an AR headset, can move the machine, walk around it, and even press certain buttons that are programmed to operate.    

Exploring opportunities and raising awareness

At some point in the future, Curtin explains, people will be able to see through special AR optics and glasses that they’ll wear on their faces (much like the glasses Nam has in mind for people with tunnel vision). They simply won’t need to use their phones to experience AR anymore. As he says, “The industry is moving so quickly right now. It’s a race to find the most frictionless capabilities – how do we eliminate the need to have that mobile app in the first place?”

Curtin believes that someday we won’t even need laptops or televisions, and he agrees with Nam that the single biggest challenge with AR is driving awareness of the concept and making sure that people are able to define what AR is. “Industry often wants to race faster than the consumer is ready to,” he remarks. “AR is just such a fascinating space to be in. It’s making content much more relevant to people and their everyday lives.”

That’s music to Nam’s ears. “The beauty about AR is that it has the ability to touch and impact so many different fields,” he says. “It has important and far-reaching applications for everything from retail and healthcare to entertainment and interior design. Sometimes my friends ask me, ‘Well, how can AR be used in this or that situation?’ I like to answer, ‘How couldn’t it be used?!’”

Want to experience a little more AR?

Download the Blue Sky Paint app from Apple’s App Store. It’s free!

Head over to zappar.com, where you can download a free, one-month trial of ZapWorks.


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