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Reality bytes

Living with a smart phone these days is a lot like taking two dates to the same dance. You want to spend 100% focused attention on your real life and your online life, but both are too important to let go. So we’ve all turned into jugglers; a race of strong-necked multi-taskers constantly looking up and down from our friend’s faces to our Facebook. Some of us are good at it. Others are, um, not. But we all feel the tension. Tension caused by the rift between how we interact with the physical and digital world: one with our senses, the other with our screens and thumbs.

Enter ‘augmented reality’ – the layering of digital images, video or information over the real world. You’ve likely seen it before, using your smart phone to project a dragon onto your coffee table, or turn a magazine ad into a video. It’s neat, something you might show your grandma to blow her mind. But, useful? No Problem-solving? Nay. That’s because thus far most A/R experiences have been gimmicky marketing ploys with little utility (save for some stand out experiences like Metaio’s IKEA app) where our screens act as small windows into relatively blasé scenes. Many have been so underwhelming that ‘augmented reality’ has become a dirty term of sorts, meaning “prepare to feel ‘meh’”.

But, fear not. For this isn’t goodbye to the promise of an evolved digital-real world. It’s merely the growing pains of a new innovation. An awkward phase where technology is ahead of application, software is ahead of hardware, and users are generally in the dark about what the heck ‘it’ is, or how the heck to use ‘it’. Just like 3D printers cranked our primarily tiny finger puppets and monogrammed frisbees before moving on to replacement hearts, augmented reality needs to dig through the kitsch before getting to the incredible stuff.

And though it’s taken awhile for A/R to find its footing, it is making strides. More smart people are experimenting with new ways to create utility. More powerful hardware is creating more fluid experiences. Wearable computers like Google Glass are taking the screen out of the equation all together. And big data is helping deliver more relevant information to layer over our world. Its momentum is snowballing. And even if it may be awhile before A/R lets you to have virtual breakfast with your sister at your kitchen table, or seamlessly see LinkedIn profiles floating next to the people you meet – it does represent progress towards shrinking the layer between our digital and physical world, and a change in the way we think about and design stuff for both.

It’s no wonder the big boys in innovation are bellying up to the table with gusto: Facebook bought Oculus Rift for 2 billion dollars, and more recently Google invested over $500 million in the mysterious Magic Leap. It’s evidence of the love and attention needed to fuel the growth spurt for this technology: turning it from something silly, into something useful, essential, and kind of magical. 

Image credit: Ben Giles