Imagine traveling internationally while wearing glasses that superimposed translations over foreign words.
Or watching a program on your 3-D TV while Internet content that you could control with hand gestures floated in front of the screen.
Sound like science fiction? It's actually right around the corner, and within a few years these products could be available to the general public. It's called augmented reality, or AR, and it represents the next great leap forward in the information age.
Google Glass and augmented reality
The most popular form of an AR product already exists: Google Glass, a head-mounted computer that people can wear like glasses. Ryan Rogowski of San Francisco recently used Google Glass on trips to China and Japan. He said Glass worked well for taking pictures because he could verbally command Glass to snap photos instead of stopping to grab his camera. He could also quickly access directions and time (which pop up on the Glass screen upon command). Rogowski, the CEO of Waygo, a smartphone app that instantly reads and translates Chinese and Japanese characters, said the Glass app Field Trip was handy as a tourist because when approached popular sites, such as the Emperor's Palace in Japan, a notification would appear on his screen.
Rogowski said Google Glass is not a "fully functional" AR device because it does not allow the user to meld the real world they see with virtual objects (an example of a true AR device is Meta Spaceglasses, which allow wearers to create usable, holographic versions of their phones and laptops).
Dr. Maribeth Gandy, director of the Interactive Media Technology Center at Georgia Tech, agrees that Google Glass is not a true augmented reality platform. However, she said people realize that augmented reality products are commercially viable after a large, popular company like Google backs the idea.
"Google has their stamp of approval on the idea of wearing a display and to some extent augmenting your environment," said Gandy.
AR in development
Gandy, who has studied augmented reality development for years, is currently researching how to use augmented reality in STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math). Gandy said hand-held AR devices can "bring certain lessons to life for the students" and help students become enthusiastic about STEM. She said AR could make a physics class more interesting, for example.
"Imagine you're building a simple machine to learn about friction and forces ... and being able to look at your machine through a tablet and seeing virtual augmentation on top of that real-world object, helping you understand that the unseen world that is causing things to work the way they do," said Gandy. She explained AR technology can help students understand many other physics concepts, such as the way a pendulum swings.
Gandy said she can think of many other applications for AR technology as a new way of seeing information.
"We have all of this information about the world. Why not look at that information in the world (using augmented reality)?" she said. "From when you’re trying to install a closet organizer — what if you just see how the parts are supposed to fit together in the actual closet?"
She added people could use AR while viewing a baseball game "to look out at the players and see stats floating over their heads" or when people see someone who looks vaguely familiar, they could view augmentations that would remind them where and how they had seen that individual before.
AR adoption obstacles
Though AR devices have a great amount of potential, price will prevent the general public from using more revolutionary AR products that are already available, such as (the semi-augmented reality device) Google Glass and Meta Spaceglasses over the next couple of years. Individuals who want to test Google Glass currently pay $1,500 for the device while Meta Spaceglasses cost over $3,000.
Todd Haselton, executive director of the gadget review site TechnoBuffalo, said those are not "consumer-friendly" prices. He said he doesnt think people will spend that much money on devices unless they are "techies" or developers who want to release apps when the products become cheaper.
Statistics in a Business Insider Intelligence report published in December support Haselton's views. Tony Danova said in the report that retail price rates will be the greatest factor in how rapidly the public adopts Glass. The report forecasted that Glass sales will "climb sharply" if Google drops the price of the product to $600 (which they predict will occur in two years) and then lowers it further.
Haselton said smartwatches, like Android Wear, may also prevent consumers from adopting AR technology because they are more convenient and allow customers to receive alerts, directions and information about the world.
"Why put something over your head when you can have something on your wrist?" Haselton explained.
However, Sam Elfawal, president of Neoris USA (an IT consulting and systems integration company), thinks wearable computing devices will prepare the public to buy AR technology. He predicted wearable computing products will control the industry soon.
"The wearable computing market is predicted to grow rapidly from $750 million last year to $5.8 billion in 2018," Elfawal said in an email.
He also said after these devices become widespread, they will prepare individuals for ubiquitous computing development, which will help AR products become mainstream.
A vision of the future
Some wonder how AR adoption will affect people after it becomes mainstream. In a recent Pew Research Center report, the majority of technology experts surveyed said there will be AR improvements to wearable, portable and even implantable technologies by 2025, but have different opinions (which range from optimistic to bleak) about the consequences of using these products.
Gandy said predicting the ramifications of AR technology is useless at this point.
"Futurists have this grand vision that we’re going to have contact lenses in our eyes and our whole world is going to be augmented," she explained, "(but) that's all really, really difficult."
"I think (augmented reality) could change us immensely, but it’s hard to even know. It’s like asking someone in 1985 how the Web will change us — you would have never predicted it, yet it’s so clear how dramatically we have changed. ... You can’t ever predict (change) until you see it in motion," she said.
Gandy also advised consumers to "stay tuned" because "it takes a long time for things to make their way from the research world into a product." She doesn't want consumers to dismiss augmented reality because they do not like what has been on the market so far.
"I want people to realize that there’s a lot more coming and that what you’ve seen in the commercial world is only the tip of the iceberg of things that could be done with AR," she said.