October 30, 2009

Journalists and publishers are exploring ways to use the emerging technology known as Augmented Reality in their work.

Augmented Reality, or AR, is “layering digital information onto the physical world,” in the words of New York Times Creative Technologist Michael Young. The most common AR apps today live on “smart” handheld devices like the iPhone or ones using Google’s Android platform.

Someone will, say, point their smartphone’s camera toward a big office building and see what restaurants and shops are available in the lobby, or point down a street to see what subway stations are available in that direction and how far away they are. The apps rely on the phones’ built-in GPS locators and compasses, as well as their ability to layer graphics and text onto what the camera is showing on the devices’ screens, while receiving data that changes and updates the graphics.

Young and his team of technologists at the Times have been looking into AR to help with such location-based journalism as restaurant reviews (point your phone at the restaurant and get its details and ratings), real estate (see how many apartments are available and what floor they’re on in a given building), and even historical data overlain on weekly architecture articles by Christopher Gray.

One recently revealed app for which it’s easy to imagine multiple journalistic uses lets you point your handheld and get an overlay on the screen that shows how bailout dollars have been spent in your neighborhood. The startup Layar, which produced the app, used Recovery.gov for the data.

Other AR applications can live on computers, like one Esquire magazine plans to use next month that will let readers hold the December issue up to their computers’ cameras to get moving images of what they’re reading, such as an actor removing layers of clothes for a fashion story about dressing for the weather. Turning the magazine will trigger other actions, The Wall Street Journal reports, such as making it appear to snow.

The U.S. Postal Service has an AR app that lets users hold up an object to a computer’s camera to see what size box they’ll need to ship it. Musician John Mayer recently collaborated with Adobe and a community of coders to produce a music video that uses AR to let a viewer have the illusion of taking part in the scenes.

Young and I also brainstormed the possibilities of having journalists use AR on a handheld in the field to tell them, say, details of a building they’re approaching. They might learn just where in a foreign ministry building a potential source’s office is, or that the spot they’re standing on is the site of a recent kidnapping or bombing. Journalists could use the information to get more quickly to where they want to go, get story ideas, come up with new sources, figure out if the spot is a good one for eyewitness interviews and otherwise improve the speed, accuracy and the depth of their reporting.

I could imagine a TV station using AR to let viewers poke around in a scene or get more information about something they’re watching right in the frame. How about facial recognition software to give information about a source a journalist is talking to?

As for making money with AR, publications like the Times could offer real estate brokers the ability to let potential tenants or buyers “see” houses and apartments on their mobile devices before ever entering. They could offer advertisers like restaurants or stores or museums or anywhere, really, the ability to layer information or offerings to entice people in. And how about reality enhanced by classifieds listings or vice versa? For example, imagine being able to see classified ads in a neighborhood overlain on the locations in which the material is available. Or being able to hold your mobile device over some print classified ad and see enhancements to the page on the device.

Esquire is offering some AR-enhanced ads in the December issue, and other publications have done so, as well, the Journal reports.

Adobe’s marketing chief Ann Lewnes said at the recent MIXX conference that Augmented Reality could become the direct mail of the 21st Century, by tying a physical mailing to a Web experience when someone holds a page up to her computer’s camera.

Getting even further afield, I could see cross-indexing AR with smart agents and semantic Web capabilities that can show you ads tailored not just to your location but also to interests they’ve learned you have.

Of course, there is a “creepiness” factor in some of this, and it can be frightening to think of the possibilities for invasion of privacy. But let’s see how far the technology goes in the coming months and years — a lot of the apps are still glitchy, require downloads and don’t quite work all the time — then see what objections are raised to how the technology is being used.

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