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New Perceptions: Augmented Reality as Entertainment
New Perceptions:
Augmented Reality as Entertainment
By Chris Thomes

Augmented reality (AR) refers to computer displays that add virtual information to a user's sensory perceptions. Most AR research focuses on "see-through" devices, usually worn on the head, which overlay graphics and text on the user's view of his or her surroundings. (Virtual information can also be in other sensory forms, such as sound or touch, but this article will concentrate on visual enhancements.) AR systems track the position and orientation of the user's head so that the overlaid material can be aligned with the user's view of the world. This process is called registration. Thru it, graphics software can place a three-dimensional image of a teacup, for example, on top of a real saucer and keep the teacup fixed in that position as the user moves about the room. AR systems employ similar technologies used in virtual-reality research, but where virtual reality attempts to replace the real world in an encompassing way, augmented reality only supplements it.

For entertainment purposes, AR has been used effectively in PR and marketing initiatives for motion picture, television, and other media promotional campaigns. Typically, these have included printed graphic or real life object recognition where the software identifies a unique symbol via web cam or cell phone camera. The software then activates a graphic overlay, which tracks fixed coordinates within the web cam image. Imagine unlocking a pseudo 3D moustache or hat that appears over your head as though you were wearing it. Or imagine holding out your hand in front of the camera and onscreen a small 3D character appears to suddenly sit in your hand and talk to you. These are examples of mapping objects and experiences onto video imagery, real-time.

Up to now, effects like this have been mainly utilized for the wow factor. Varying platforms and high development costs have limited deeper more immersive experiences. Although, toy manufacturer Mattel, partnering with Total Immersion, created interesting experiences for the Avatar inspired toy line. Each Avatar action figure toy included a little card that is scannable via web cam. The result is an on-screen, augmented reality robot or character. You can see more demos at AvatarItag.com, but an example of it working is here:



So, this may be one way to reach mass audiences – thru retail.

But the real question is, how compelling is the content? Little characters and micro activities are just scratching the surface of what can be done. AR’s applications can reach audiences in entirely new ways. It is fundamental shift in user. This is a compelling notion, especially as users continue to expect lifestyle-based devices like iPad. The more the devices become simple and ergonomic, the more unique user interfaces can become effective methods for allowing interaction with information and entertainment.

Many experiments with AR now allow users to explore locations using mobile devices with graphical overlays that can teach users about historical locations, explore tourist destinations, play games that use AR to place game interfaces directly onto real-life surfaces, or even use AR to teach and warn people about safety conditions or as critical navigation. And that may be where AR is quickly headed. The research and development labs of General Motors have been working closely with several universities, including Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Southern California, to build an augmented reality system that could assist motorists in difficult driving situations.



The new system, called the enhanced vision system, would embed an array of sensors and cameras inside and outside vehicles that could monitor a driver’s eye and head movements and provide relevant additional information to help him deal with current driving conditions. Imagine that in foggy or dark conditions, the system helps define the edges of the road and points to upcoming road signs. With this new technology, the information will be displayed on the car’s windshield, which will be coated with transparent phosphors.

So while people may end up safer on the road, informed on their vacations, and not…lost, how can AR be used for entertainment? The secret to that lies in behavioral design. Because AR can adapt to a variety of environments and has sophisticated tracking capabilities, it is a new brush in the producer’s palate when painting stories. But like good videogame development, a "story” must have interactive elements that benefit from AR’s capabilities. Simply creating stunts with a quick experience that is not repeatable has little ROI, for both the storyteller and the audience. Encouraging re-use behavior is critical to maximizing AR development.

Many marketing departments and agencies have dabbled with AR and, while the initial experience has a wow factor, the audience will simply burn thru it if it is not created carefully. For many marketers, that may not be important since they often are interested in opening weekends or stunts and audience engagement is not needed beyond an initial crescendo. For producers of new media, though, AR can be expensive and justifying costs require a solid business model supported by smart product and content development.

In order to reach mass markets, Producers will want to ride the tech wave extend what audiences already find compelling about their favorite connected experiences and applications. They will also need to re-examine what "storytelling” and entertainment means to audiences on the go. Facebook may be a good place to start looking. Mob Wars and other Facebook game apps have people addicted. Now imagine taking that behavior of interacting with people and places to a new level where you can map a story or information onto any location in the world.

Visiting ancient ruins may become a more active experience with AR. Imagine the Roman Coliseum coming to life right before your eyes. Or imagine a who-done-it happening before visitors at a historic London rowhouse. It will be this layer where AR transcends "consumerization” to become storytelling. And if the experiences can be entertaining enough to "map” pathos into our lives wherever we are, we might pay for it just like a ring tone, a DVD, cable TV or a movie ticket, which would be music to the ears of savvy content producers.