This year Augmented Reality (AR) is out of the box. It has escaped from the universities and is spreading like wild fire. It’s being written about more and more, especially by marketing people, who go for hypes first. This last month I’ve personally heard about at least 4 advertising agencies working on it. On Twitter its mentioned at least 5 times an hour. What types of Augmented Reality are there and where do we stand?

To frame this and differentiate the levels of AR I made the Augmented Reality Hype Cycle. It is inspired by Robert Rice’s article “Is it too early for Augmented Reality?” and expands on the AR Levels which he describes in “Augmented Vision and the Decade of Ubiquity “. The Gartner Hype Cycle is a great method to plot new technologies and applications.

In the Hype Cycle I focus on technology that is already out there and which application is aimed at the individual. Not Industrial. Also I focus on mobile when ever possible.

There are 4 Levels of AR (the larger grey titles):

  • Level 0 – Physical World Hyper Linking
  • Level 1 – Marker Based AR
  • Level 2 – Markerless AR
  • Level 3 – Augmented Vision

LEVEL 0 – Physical World Hyper Linking

This is the oldest form and an addition to Rices’s 3 initial Levels of AR. It is a way to link the physical world to the virtual world. It starts with the 1D (UPC) bar code that’s on every product you have. It’s the identifier as registered in the database. The same can be said for 2D codes of which QR-codes are best known. Last part of this group is 2D image recognition. Most used mobile application is the recognition of a company logo or film poster which will then redirect you to a site for more information.

Being the oldest, this form of AR is the most developed. Its also the simplest and doesn’t involve real time rendering and display of graphics. Some may not even call it AR. General adoption of this technology will happen within a year. Most Nokia phones are already outfitted with the software for 1D and 2D bar code scanning. 2D scanning is stuck on the slope of enlightenment and will be surpassed by 2D image recognition in the coming year.

Examples of 1D & 2D Barcodes:

Examples 2D Image Recognition

LEVEL 1 – Marker Based AR

This is where the hype is now. Augmented reality based on markers. Its the first step for real AR because it enables real time processing of ‘reality’ through the recognition of markers and subsequently real time rendering and display of graphics on top of this reality.

The first type is the 2D Marker AR which is PC and web cam based. Almost all applications work use an Internet connection to retrieve more information. The marker is the black and white square image you print out and hold in front of your web cam to see a 3D animation.

This is what most people are doing. There are also free toolkits to develop applications and now also Flash based which explains a lot of the popularity.

Next step up is 2D Marker AR with a mobile device. This is tricky-er because it involves a lot or real time processing and a very capable phone. For instance it is not possible on the iPhone because the OS does not allow for real time video processing. You also can’t record video with it as yet. It is possible with a hacked iPhone though.

2D Marker AR is most seen on Windows Mobile devices surprisingly enough. Coolest is 3D recognition, where the mobile recognizes a chair or another physical object and goes on to augmented it.

Level 1 – Marker Based AR is moving from the technology trigger to just before the actual peak of inflated expectations. For now it will not go away and in the coming year PC and Mobile 2D marker based AR will be the IN thing. Where the mobile version will be lagging in comparison to the PC based version due to the lack of computing power and other mobile issues. When the novelty is worn off the actual application value will prove to be thin. Its no real money maker except for marketing and PR applications. On the mobile it will last a bit longer when good games come out. The most promising, 3D recognition, is in the tail of Level 1 – Marker Based AR and is hardly a reality yet.

Examples of 2D Marker AR – PC & Web cam based:

Examples of 2D Marker AR – Mobile:

Examples 3D Object Recognition – Mobile:

LEVEL 2 – Markerless AR

Augmented Reality without markers is powerful. Pull out your mobile phone and experience an augmented reality. It can be that simple. Only G1 (the Android – Google phone from T-mobile) owners had the opportunity to experience this with Wikitude from Mobilizy and later ING Wegwijzer. Its based on GPS data and the compass. Because the phone knows where it is (the GPS) and in what direction you are looking (the compass) it can augment reality on the screen correctly.

Level 2 – Markerless AR is halfway the technology trigger and will be nearing the peak of inflated expectations in a year when more phones have the combination of GPS and compass. The Nokia N97 which will be out in the summer will have a compass and will trigger the first non Android Markerless AR applications. It is unknown if the new iPhone will have this capability. It would be HUGH if it did…

Examples of GPS – Compass based AR:

LEVEL 3 – Augmented Vision

This does not exist yet. As Rice says:

“We must break away from the monitor and display to lightweight transparent wearable displays (in an eyeglasses form factor). Once AR becomes AV, it is immersive. The whole experience immediately changes into something more relevant, contextual, and personal. This is radical and changes everything. As I have said before, this will be the next evolution in media. Print, Radio, Television, Internet, Augmented Reality (well, Vision). L3 must also be mobile massively multi-user, persistent, shared, dynamic, and ubiquitous.”

It will be more then 3 years before anything remotely capable will be available. Until then we will have to make do with research news like that of the University of Washington where they are working on displaying pixels in contact lenses .

In Conclusion

To me it’s daunting to see how far there is to go. Yet knowing where we are now, what is coming and how to frame it enables realistic planning and choices. I hope it helps you. I’ll be enjoying the ride and developing some cool AR initiatives with my SPRX partners.

Thanks to all AR bloggers and twitterers who directly and indirectly helped me put this together. Looking forward to see your feedback and more examples in the comments.


SPRXMobile Mobile Service Architects » The Augmented Reality Hype Cycle

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