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Media Perspective: A sensitive touch is needed to tap into augmented reality

Last week's column excited the first flurry of e-mail correspondence I've had in a long time, and I admit to being humbled by the excitement and energy that many of you still bring to fighting the good digital/online fight.

But some arguments served to illustrate how much of what was once a revolution has now ossified into a new orthodoxy, a sort of government-in-waiting that, although important and with destiny on its side, just isn't that interesting. That's my big problem with much of what passes for media and creative innovation these days - it's nothing we couldn't have predicted ten or 20 years ago.

Therefore, it's my plan for the next few weeks to look at some things that we can't realistically make any sensible predictions about, stuff that's too far out for the dead hand of conventional wisdom to have smothered all the fun. And Apple's recent announcements about the next iPhone might be a good starting point because the company has snuck something rather special in there: a compass.

This means that the premier "phone of the future" now has the capability to do proper augmented reality. Because it doesn't just know where it is, it knows which way it's facing. So the sci-fi dream of a heads- up display for life gets a bit more possible, and our phones might soon be supplementing our experience of the world with layers of tags, data and visuals.

Point your phone at something and it'll tell you all about it. Look at the world via your phone and information and images will hover above their physical anchors. Or something. That's the joy of it. No-one really has a good idea how it might all work.

Of course, the media geeks will always quote the canonical examples of pizza restaurants telling you where they are and what's on offer but there are both more exciting and much darker possibilities than those.

It could spell either the end, or the triumph, of the poster industry. On the one hand, we can imagine a world where no-one needs posters any more, because we'll simply ask our customers to let us overlay an informational layer on their world, which'll blank out poster sites anyway. On the other hand, we can easily imagine "augmented billboards" as the media of the future - fixed canvases for tailored messages and experiences?

And what do we learn from such basic speculation? It'll still come down to trust. If we do to the augmented visual field what we've done to the web and build the equivalent of banners into the physical world, our customers won't let us anywhere near their augmented reality. If we can do something cleverer and more sensitive, then we might build ourselves a really useful tool.

russell@russelldavies.com

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