I think the most appropriate way to kick off the Augmera blog would be to define augmented reality. Not so long ago augmented reality was a term relegated to the geekier corners of technology academia. But if you were to chart its public awareness, you would see a steep rise over the past 18 months that continues to build thanks to Google Glass and the many other companies that are stepping up to the challenge of commercializing it. Many people have an idea of what AR is, but few people have a vision for what it can be. Rather than attempt to define the term myself, I have set out to examine definitions offered by others:

Let’s start simple with Mirriam Webster’s definition: “An enhanced version of reality created by the use of technology to overlay digital information on an image of something being viewed through a device (as a smartphone camera); also :  the technology used to create augmented reality.” This succinct definition is a good start but would not be of much use to someone who has never heard of AR. Webster does hit on the fundamental concept of digital overlay of information.

One of the most widely referenced definitions that comes up in Google searches comes from a presentation given by Mimi Sheller, Professor of Sociology at Drexel University at the 2011 Philadelphia Science Festival Augmented Reality Program: “The ability to seamlessly and dynamically integrate graphic and other multimedia content with live camera views on PCs and mobile computing devices such as your smartphone.” I find the definition to be too limited to reveal the broader spectrum of considerations that need to be taken into account. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CqxF2Vdkyxw

Entrepreneur James Fahey also finds this definition to be too narrow. He argues rather convincingly that it need not necessarily be computer generated content, involve visual systems (such as a camera) nor require a PC or a mobile device for delivery. Instead, he proposes, “Augmented reality (AR) is the artificial, seamless, and dynamic integration of new content into, or removal of existing content from, perceptions of reality.” What is most important about this definition is that Fahey is eliminating the requirement that AR be visual in nature. Indeed, I believe that AR can come in other forms such as sound, touch and even smell. I find the notion of removal of existing content to be a compelling component not found in other definitions. Some may refer to this as “mediated reality”. http://www.jamesfahey.com/2013/01/16/augmented-reality-towards-a-better-definition/

I like how blogger Lara Jongedijk calls attention to the sensual appeal in her definition and introduces the concept of meaning rather than just information: “Augmented reality (AR) is an environment where a real life is enhanced by virtual elements in real time. The purpose of AR is to enhance the information we naturally receive through our five senses, by adding superimposed, constructed virtual elements to bring complementary information and meaning that may not be possible to see by natural means.” http://augreality.pbworks.com/w/page/9469035/Definition%20and%20key%20information%20on%20AR

From an academic standpoint, researcher Ronald T. Azuma provided what is considered to be the seminal treatment of AR in his 1997 paper “A Survey of Augmented Reality” which has been referenced by the highest number of other academic papers on the topic. He posits the following three parameters for qualifying a technology or experience as AR:

  1. Combines real and virtual
    AR supplements reality, rather than completely replacing it. Ideally, it would appear to the user that the virtual and real objects coexisted in the same space. This is what distinguishes AR from virtual reality which has no view upon the real world.
  2. Interactive in real time
    Azuma imposes this rule to exclude film animation that is superimposed on an otherwise real scene such as the dinosaurs in Jurassic park. However, this rule also eliminates the yellow first down line marker on American football broadcasts which many hold out as an example of simple AR.
  3. Registered in 3-D
    I find this to be Azuma’s most controvertible rule. He is imposing it to distinguish AR from simple heads-up displays that simply place data or information in the field of view. Azuma believes that augmented content must contextually interact with the scene that it is imposed upon. This definition disqualifies many applications that many would consider to be in the AR space such as Google Glass.

Another AR researcher, Alex Olwal, also sites the requirement to align the superimposed information with the real scene, however he does not stress the 3D aspect that Azuma does. Perhaps this definition allows for AR to be achieved with less advanced technology thus making it commercially attainable in a shorter timeframe: “The fundamental idea of AR is to combine, or mix, the view of the real environment with additional, virtual content that is presented through computer graphics. Its convincing effect is achieved by ensuring that the virtual content is aligned and registered with the real objects. As a person moves in an environment and their perspective view of real objects changes, the virtual content should also be presented from the same perspective.” http://www.csc.kth.se/~alx/courses/DT2140/olwal_introduction_to_ar_2010_03_05.pdf

I find the Wikipedia definition to be very well honed through the collaboration of many people. “Augmented reality (AR) is a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. …As a result, the technology functions by enhancing one’s current perception of reality. …Augmentation is conventionally in real-time and in semantic context with environmental elements, such as sports scores on TV during a match. With the help of advanced AR technology (e.g. adding computer vision and object recognition) the information about the surrounding real world of the user becomes interactive and digitally manipulable. Artificial information about the environment and its objects can be overlaid on the real world.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augmented_reality

I would highly recommend that anyone with an interest in defining AR read the “Talk” tab of the wiki entry. There are a number of experts passionately weighing in on what AR is and what it is not. As it turns out, different parties have different agendas for defining it as they do, and I think this is the real takeaway from my blog entry. The academics, the marketeers and the software developers all come to the table with different viewpoints and motivations. Like many things in this world, AR is subject to interpretation. I don’t foresee any one definition emerging that everyone will agree upon. As the technology eventually becomes mainstream and commercialized, the market will sort out what is accepted as augmented reality. Those things that fall outside of the accepted definition will find new names.

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