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The Incredible New World of Augmented Reality

2009 September 27
by Greg Satell

Augmented Reality, technology that superimposes computer generated media on the real world, is one of the most exciting things happening today.  In fact the progress being made is hard to believe.

The concept is an old one, 3D images projected into reality have been a staple of Science Fiction for years.  Whether it was Princess Leia beckoning to Obiwan Kenobi in Star Wars or characters interacting with manufactured environments in the “holodeck” on Star Trek, seeing computer images interact with the real world in movies is something we’ve grown accustomed to.  However, actually being able to use the technology has always seemed a long way off.

The future is coming fast!  Very cool and useful Augmented Reality applications are launching right now and we’ll be seeing the technology continue to develop for decades.

Early Augmented Reality

Among the first baby steps for Augmented Reality were computer generated graphics in televised sporting events.  From computer generated advertisements  on the field to superimposed “halos” highlighting a single player or race car, the graphics were fundamentally different from what we’d seen before.  They appeared to interact with their environment.  As the camera’s perspective changed so did the appearance of the image, making it look and feel as if it were part of the action.

There have also been less publicized, but more sophisticated uses of the technology in the military and manufacturing.  Soldiers can wear helmets that have important information such as maps, enemy positions, etc.  3D representations are used in oil and mineral exploration.  Furthermore, modifying virtual models of products such as cars enable companies to shave millions of dollars off of development costs.

Presently, the technology is becoming good enough, small enough and cheap enough to use in our daily lives.

Augmented Reality Comes to the Mobile Phone

With reasonably powerful processors and GPS embedded in mobile phones, the ability to superimpose media on the world around us is being deployed in iPhone and Android applications.  As you move the camera around, information is superimposed on the image.  Robotvision shows the possibilities in this video.

Robotvision is not the only one company rushing out with exciting applications. has recently come out with an iPhone product that incorporates information about restaurants, stores and the like onto whatever you see through your camera.  You can also click through to find reviews, promotions, sales and so on.

Wikitude will offer a similar service that uses Wikipedia data to superimpose information about the world around us.  For instance, as we stroll through a city we will be able to pan our mobile phone around and find historical buildings, facts about them, etc.

Other Upcoming Augmented Reality Products


While the mobile phone applications will be undoubtedly rolled out the fastest and will be the most widely adopted, many other exciting things are happening as well.  Here is a video of a product that will enable e-commerce by allowing users to “try on” clothes over the internet.

Other applications are ready or near ready. From virtual user manuals that can be projected on complicated machinery to video games that involve players in the action.  The technology is moving astoundingly fast!

Agora Media, a digital agency,  presents 17 new applications on their site.



Another technology that is not strictly Augmented Reality, but will figure in its future is Microsoft’s Photosynth.  It links together hundreds or even thousands of images to render a 3D model that can be navigated almost effortlessly.  Blaise Aguera y Arcas gave a very impressive demo of Photosynth at the TED conference.  You can see it here. (It’s about 10 minutes long).

The Photosynth technology will allow us to build 3D models of real places simply by using photo databases.  Increasingly, we will be able to interact with those models in virtual environments.

The Trends Driving the Future of Augmented Reality


While the new technology is dazzling, we have every reason to expect vast improvements due to trends in supporting technologies.

Processor Speed: Moore’s Law continues to hold up, although the existing methods will have run their course in a decade or so, new processes will be developed that will continue to increase chip efficiency and drive down cost.  The most likely solution is Quantum Computing, but there are other ideas as well.

Bandwidth and Memory: These two crucial components are, if anything, advancing even faster than processing speed.  We are rapidly moving into and age of virtually free bandwidth and memory.

Nanotechnology: Through altering molecules at the atomic level, new materials are being invented.  Nanotech will be used to miniaturize components to the microscopic level and engineer new atomic level machinery that can extend battery life and resolution of 3D images.

Holographic Technology: Among other uses, holographic technology will be used to project 3D images into the real world rather than just incorporate the graphics on screen.

(For more on these trends, see 3 Trends That Will Drive the Digital Future).

Our Sci-Fi Future


As the technologies described above continue to improve, we will be able to interact with computer generated objects in the real world.  By combining ultrasound with holograms, researchers have created touchable 3D media

Augmented reality will open up whole new worlds of productivity, entertainment and virtual products.  It’ll be exciting to watch it all unfold.

Researchers are working on a plethora of new ideas.  The National Tele-Immersion Initiative is working on 3D teleconferences. A true, global rock concert where audiences around the world can interact with each other is different only in scale.

“Virtual” windows will give real life views of the street outside to previously walled in apartments.  Virtual, 3D blueprints will be created in real time. Engineers at the site can collaborate with architects far away, with not only real data, but as if they were in the same place.  These are just a few of the applications underway.

Although much of this might seem like science fiction, these are all projects that are being actively invested in.  Most of the difficulties are ones of cost and scale rather than technology.  Those are problems that tend be overcome with time and will most likely get solved faster than we think.

– Greg

30 Responses leave one →
  1. September 27, 2009

    Very well researched and written!
    AR (augmented reality) has finally become more exposed thanks mainly due to price of technology coming down.

    Everyones waiting for this to be released. with an affordable see through HMD … everything is possible!

    here’s some of my initial experiments with AR back in 2006 🙂


  2. September 27, 2009


    Thanks for the vote of confidence and the links. The AR glasses actually look fashionable!

    Keep up the good work:-)

    – Greg

  3. September 28, 2009

    Greg, I really enjoy reading you-always informative! Spreading your blog in my universe…


  4. September 28, 2009

    Thanks Gertrude. Your support is much appreciated.

    – Greg

  5. September 28, 2009

    For 20 years my brother has been developing “heads-up” instrumentation for fighter aircraft, like guns that rotate when you turn your head and aim at the crosshairs on your visor, superimposed on enemy aircraft pictured on your visor or winshield. People complain about military spending, but it has opened the doors to many more things than we know, like NC (numerical control) introduced by the US Air Force in the 1950s revolutionized machine tool technology.

  6. September 28, 2009


    Your brother is doing a very good job:-))

    – Greg

  7. September 28, 2009 a restaurant, some one is choking on somefood, or, someone needs a critical injection to a certain vein in the body… a person can put on a pair of See through HMD and have the human blood vessels superimposed on the real body of the patient, just aiding in a life threatening situation.

    …the other side of AR can also be used to train guns and superimpose cross hairs on a target for destruction…

    Don’t mis-understand me, I don’t have anything against this use of AR, I just wish governments and NGOs has as much funding for furthering AR in other areas as it does for “defence”.


  8. September 28, 2009


    You make a good point, but there is another side to it as well. Military funds a lot of basic research which eventually gets put to other uses. The internet is a good example, as is Radar, GPS, trauma medicine, etc.

    – Greg

  9. September 28, 2009

    One of my favorite quotes on defense spending: “How great it would be if we could gain all the technological advances of World War III without having to fight it.”

    (I often cover augmented reality on my own blog, GigantiCo.)

  10. September 28, 2009


    Yes, I saw. Nice!

    – Greg

  11. September 28, 2009

    AR as it gets more detailed has as you say far reaching implications. Microsoft is announcing and pushing thier new AR technology for the XBOX 360. I didn’t see you list it, so maybe it’s not as far along as I think, but project Natal has at least elements of what you are describing.

  12. September 29, 2009

    Good intro and glad you mentioned Nano tech too! Often forgotten and a long way from basic Social Media 🙂

    A couple of weeks ago and using the same & more video case studies I covered a range of examples and business models for Augmented Reality here and your readers may be interested in looking at AR from a story perspective too here

  13. September 29, 2009


    Apparently Wii is doing something similar. There are hundreds of very cool things coming out. I’m sure there are even more that haven’t been announced yet. For instance, I haven’t seen anything from yet, but I expect we’ll be seeing something shortly.

    – Greg

  14. September 29, 2009


    Nice blog. Thanks for the heads up.

    – Greg

  15. September 29, 2009

    For Augmented reality to become reality might be some distance away, but the intial apps, however basic have shown a path that it is doable. Soon it will be over to entrepreneurs to use the technology to develop apps and model their businesses around them.

  16. September 29, 2009

    Hi Greg,

    You should take a look at my app Robotvision, available now on the iPhone 3GS.

    It’s a unique, adaptable user experience for AR that is going to transfer well to custom, white-labeled solutions.

    I’d love to get your feedback on it.

  17. September 29, 2009


    I think it’s pretty far along already. Look at the other comments.

    – Greg

  18. September 29, 2009


    Very Cool. What’s the release date?

    For everybody else. Here’s the video!

  19. October 15, 2009

    Great post – just read about AR in the Tech Quarterly (The Economist mid September 2009). Thanks for sharing. Very well written and info-taining.

  20. October 15, 2009


    Thanks. I’m glad you liked it.

    – Greg

  21. October 17, 2009

    “virtual user manuals that can be projected on complicated machinery” is a great use especially if it’s context sensitive, for example, getting the exact page you need on the circuit you’re repairing on a jet engine projected right next to that part.

  22. October 17, 2009


    Apparently, that’s the idea.

    – Greg

  23. Mark Mulholland permalink
    October 22, 2009

    Greg this was very informative and the videos were a big help. It gives me greater hope for Apple and iphones.
    Mark Mulholland

  24. October 22, 2009


    Thanks. Keep the Matthew 25 fund growing!

    – Greg

  25. November 4, 2009

    Great article! Nano technology is extremely interesting to me and the possibilities will hopefully keep pace with development.

  26. November 4, 2009

    Thanks, Tina.

    Great Blog, btw. I felt a bit more hip by just browsing through:-)

    – Greg

  27. November 6, 2009


    fantastic article! i loved the indepth research and covering augmented reality from a multitude of angles.

    i am personally excited at the integrated marketing opportunities that AR will bring. i am covering a lot of marketing use cases on my blog as well. i believe once AR will be understood and ‘known’ among the typical integrated marketing world, it will appear more and more as part of a campaign.

    just recently wrote an article on how a collection of agencies / dev shops came together to launch an AR campaign for the Canadian Lottery ( ).

    i believe it’s this type of approach that will really distinguish AR from just a novelty to general consumer acceptance.

  28. November 6, 2009


    Thanks. Great site!

    – Greg

  29. November 27, 2009

    It is great to have someone looking ahead who reports what’s next for those of us who have our knuckles to keys, pencils, and pixels.

  30. November 28, 2009

    Head Honcho,

    Thanks. That’s high praise indeed.

    – Greg

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