Augmented Reality: Ready to get Real?

Augmented Reality is a technology that has promised much but delivered little. Mixing the physical and virtual worlds by overlaying text, images and video content on top of real life in real time, AR has long been touted as the next big thing, both in the consumer and professional technology arenas.
But despite such augmented expectation, the actual reality is that AR has failed to capture public imagination, suffering from poor platforms, uninspiring apps and lacklustre content.
However, there are some signs that Augmented Reality is finally coming of age. Mobile AR platforms such as Aurasma and Blippar have recently announced significant commercial partnerships, Amazon Flow is narrowing the gap between shopping in the physical and online worlds, and the Google Glass project unveiled last month reveals that AR may be a difficult to ignore strategy for the search giant.
Facing Reality
The smartphone revolution should have been the golden bullet for the AR industry, mobilising the masses with devices that integrate the cameras, colour screens and network access that are key to the technology’s execution.
But while the AR platforms have themselves become technically capable, in practice few applications of any substance have gone beyond the gimmick to fully engage with the public, with most use cases being pushed by advertisers and marketers rather than genuinely pulled by the consumer. 
AR versus QR
Both the limited content and public awareness have been major barriers to wider AR adoption. The popular but lo-fi QR Code has parallels with AR implementations inasmuch as it relies upon image recognition to identify a ‘trigger’ (the QR matrix barcode) and then present relevant extended content. The benefit here is that the QR barcode itself is immediately visually distinctive, inviting curiosity and engagement. 
The intelligent visual recognition at the heart of AR technologies from the likes of Aurasma means that any object, be it a business card, shopfront or landmark, can potentially become a trigger. Clever technology, but herein may lie its Achilles’ Heel as there is often little advertising additional AR content other than an optional small graphic. For example, some red-top daily newspapers in the UK conceal AR content on their front page but with little or no indication to the reader that they do so.
Nevertheless, outside of entertainment and commerce there are professional many applications for AR technology. The Head-Up Display, or HUD, has been successfully deployed by the military in aircraft for decades and similar technology now seeps into consumer vehicles; there are examples of AR being used by field engineers to assist with the installation of hardware; and providers of educational materials in schools are also beginning to flex their creative muscles with the technology.
HP does AR?

Aurasma (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the main players in the consumer AR market is UK-based Aurasma. Developed and owned by Autonomy, famously bought by HP in a $12 billion deal last year, the Cambridge company has been feverishly building commercial partnerships to promote its platform.

Key to raising awareness of a consumer product are the brand tie-ins, and Aurasma has plenty. Its logo appears on Tottenham Hotspur Football Club’s players’ shirts, Aurasma ‘auras’ feature throughout the BBC’s Top Gear Magazine and it has been partnering with Universal Pictures in its 100th birthday celebrations this year.
As Aurasma’s Head of Partnerships and Innovation, Matt Mills is a man with his finger on the pulse of both the present and future for Augmented Reality. At an event showcasing Aurasma’s technology on Sunday I asked Matt about AR and its applications outside of entertainment, how Aurasma fits with Autonomy’s strategy, and what innovations we can expect in the coming months:
While gaming would seem to be an integral part of Aurasma’s strategy for growing its AR footprint, it may be that user-generated content and experiences could trigger the fastest growth for AR. 
AR Mashups
Mashups combine multiple sources of (often publicly available) data to create new understandings and visualisations; a classic mashup example is in which maps provided by Google Maps are overlayed with neighbourhood crime statistical data from Chicago’s police departement to create a visual heatmap of crime hotspots across the City.
If one of the key challenges for Augmented Reality platforms is to build a comprehensive catalogue of AR triggers and genuinely useful content then developing and opening the platform to enable real-time augmented reality mashups could be an ingenious and compelling move. Of course, the risk for companies such as Aurasma would be a disruption of its partner pay-per-click revenue model.
Future Prospects
With further high-profile partnerships, immersive gaming and (hopefully) genuine value-added experiences on the slate, AR’s visibility is building. As Google’s Glass/Goggles combination further whets appetites and inspires the imaginations of both content creators and consumers, it finally seems that the momentum behind Augmented Reality has, well, augmented.