Those of you who follow Chairman Bruce and other such futurist types can’t have failed to notice the Cambrian explosion of buzz around Augmented Reality in the last month or so. I sure have, and I’ll confess to having been thoroughly bitten by the bug; not only does it mesh with my long-running cyberpunk jones, but it’s the logical next step from the metaverse (which still fascinates, though I don’t have the time for exploration that I did a few years ago).
There’s a real sense of imminence about Augmented Reality right now, a vibe similar to that around the internet itself in 1994 when I started university (and my short-lived dead-tree subscription to Wired, not coincidentally). You know the feeling: that whole “you can’t do much with it yet, but give these people a few years and some VC funding and who knows?” sensation; a feeling of potentiality.
Of course, AR is actually quite an old concept (the term was coined around 1990, apparently), but only now has mobile computing technology matured to a point where it can be put into practice at a price level where people like you and I can afford the hardware that runs it. If you’re carrying an iPhone or similar device (I’m an Android guy myself), you’ve got an Augmented Reality terminal in your pocket that’s just waiting for some killer apps to arrive.
Those apps are on their way, with quite a few in demo form already, but AR is a technology that will need infratructure – not hardware infrastructure so much as network protocols to connect the hardware together effectively. Enter Thomas Wrobel, a UK based sci-fi geek (yeah, he’s one of us!) who has developed a proposal for an open Augmented Reality network that could be built using existing protocols like IRC and HTTP. I’ll freely admit that a good 50% of the technical stuff he’s talking about here is way over my head, but the other half is full of things that have the appealing ring of simplicity. Wrobel’s aim is to create an AR system that avoids the ‘browser wars’ that have afflicted the web… and while I’m in no position to judge whether his ideas could actually work, I think it’s safe to say that he (and others like him) probably aren’t too far from some sort of conceptual breakthrough.
Of course, only time will tell if Augmented Reality will become a part of our day-to-day lives just like the internet has, or whether it will be relegated to the same Hall of Unfulfilled Promise that houses its closely related cousin, Virtual Reality. One thing’s for sure: it’s going to be an interesting journey.