Augmenting Reality

By Published on .

Fight Club's IKEA scene with the wonderfully creepy Edward Norton was, perhaps unknowingly, one of the first pop culture reference to augmented reality.

The film Stranger Than Fiction was another, where stories about a space began to emerge directly within the space. The shift from virtual reality [AR], which deals with virtual immersive worlds, to augmented reality, which involves blending the real with world with virtual elements, is significant.

Today data is free and ubiquitous, which leads me to believe that the only thing of true value today is curated information. What I mean by that is that data begins to bring value only when a particular kind of filter is applied, making the data become contextually meaningful and valuable again. A database of information is helpful but a smart system that can map relevant information in real time and space is game-changing.

But where and how that information is experienced is equally as critical. We live in a multi-dimensional world and I believe that we can't help our craving for data – both in the form of knowledge and experience - to crawl out of the screen and into our physical spaces. Innovations in augmented reality are where this kind of layering of information becomes particularly fascinating.


Take, for example, the European Space Agency's research and prototyping of a Wearable Augmented Reality [WEAR] system designed as a head-mounted display over one eye to superimpose 3D graphics and data onto its wearer's field of view.

Astronauts are still using paper instruction manuals for many operational and maintenance tasks that are difficult to perform with one hand, particularly while missing the important force of gravity. WEAR is controlled by voice activation and provides precise information and step-by-steps instructions for difficult and complex procedures.


Augmented reality has incredible applications in surgery, as well, including providing surgeons with enhanced visualization, intraoperative imaging and surgical training.

Previously, surgeons would have to look away from the operating table to reference information and representations. AR facilitates a fixed field of vision on the surgical site, as graphic data gets superimposed into the surgeon's vision. An example of significant work being done in the field includes a group called ARIS*ER; a consortium consisting of six academic institutions (including hospitals) and two cutting-edge technology companies, dedicated to bringing AR to surgery.


Museums, too, are transforming their relationship to their visitors, and their visitors' relationships to the artifact, with the development of augmented reality applications. Current examples leave much to the imagination but the potential ideas and applications are immense and transformative.


BMW brings its engineers and technicians AR technology to facilitate and assist with complex instructions and procedures.


A more pedestrian example is an augmented reality App for finding your car by intridea – a life-changing application for those of us who are geographically challenged.


Or augmented reality applications in non-traditional advertising for feature films, such as James Cameron's Avatar augmented reality toys:


I'll end with my favorite. Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh are developing an AR visualization platform that will allow drivers to glance through walls in order to prevent traffic accidents. Using two cameras – one that captures the driver's view and a second that sees the scene behind a view-blocking wall –information is synthesized to create the appearance of transparent walls.

It's difficult to guess what the interfaces that carry these new layers of information will look like in the future. Existing screens might dissolve, new media delivery systems might appear, and many interfaces might integrate into each other. What fascinates me is how we will dress, decorate, discover and design these layers into our everyday lives and, in turn, how they will alter ours.

I'm leaving you with a fascinating glance at a possible future, created by a designer and film-maker in the final year of graduate school at the Bartlett School for Architecture, called Keiichi Matsuda.

Most Popular
In this article: