There are some technologies in development right now that are strait out of science fiction and so amazing that they’re almost frightening: prosthetic robotic limbs for amputees, retinal implants for the blind, cloaking devices that make objects invisible. But considering all of the changes these might bring, I think the most interesting is one that could revolutionize our lives in much more practical ways—augmented reality. Augmented reality is a technology that combines mobile technology, digital imaging, and internet databases with the object of allowing a person to see information digitally inserted onto live video displays. Imagine a friend inviting you over to their place, but when you get there, for whatever reason you can’t tell which building is theirs. Imagine opening an application (like Google Maps) on your smart phone that uses the video camera. You hold the phone up against a building, looking at the digital video display, and there above where the front door connects to the sidewalk, is that building’s address.
There are already a variety of these apps available. One that I enjoy is an astronomy application for the iPhone that allows the user to see the position of stars, constellations, planets and other heavenly bodies displayed on the screen in their actual position as the phone is moved around and across the sky. But augmented reality’s developers have plans that go far beyond cell phones, which are helpful when you have time to stop, open an app, and hold and move the phone around. But limitation is forcing developers to move in different directions as they push the technology forward. So, while the ubiquity of mobile devices has made the application of augmented reality programs more pragmatic, but where the technology’s future really lies is with personal accoutrements, most notably, eyeglasses.
Augmented reality’s true potential is allowing users to have access to helpful information in the form of visual displays, so its most urgent need is a screen. Glasses are, obviously, the most natural place to set up an unobtrusive screen that moves with a person’s field of vision. It would require the creation of a set of glasses that would allow light to enter the outside of the lenses, while being able to have an image somehow projected on the inside. One such inventor has solved this dilemma by making lenses from two materials that do just that, and also house tiny video projectors. His glasses can even go completely opaque and allow the wearer to focus on what’s in front of them at the moment: email, Facebook, a game or movie. Imagine taking a flight without having to worry about lugging your laptop around or squinting into your iPhone.
There are a number of researchers, including Google, that are working to augmented reality glasses, well, a reality. What’s really fun to think about is what this kind of technology is capable of delivering. Imagine visiting Rome and seeing the Coliseum restored to its original shape, height and color as you approach its ruins in the street. Or watching American soldiers rush past you as you stroll the battlefield on Omaha beach. Teachers could integrate images and materials—like photos, charts and maps—to help illustrate their lectures. And of course, drivers could have everything they would need to know—speed, fuel level, diagnostic information, even maps—on display for them whenever they would want it. Who knows, maybe there might even be a way for glasses like these to tell that guy who just cut you off what you really think of his driving?