Nokia's Sad Augmented Reality

Yesterday, Nokia released a well-produced video demonstrating what they apparently believe to be the future of augmented reality apps. If you haven't been keeping up with AR, it's just used to denote an information layer placed over what you see. And while AR will certainly be a part of all our realities in the next few years, Nokia has it all wrong. (See what's so hard about making AR apps here.) The video:

Viscerally, it's exciting; at least one blog called the demo "the bomb." But as ReadWriteWeb rightly notes, the question we should be asking is how AR apps can actually improve our physical lives—not how they can make exiting technology like text messaging more future-y. And this video make it seem like Nokia is only interested in the latter. (Below, an essentially useless music-picker running on AR glasses.)

Augmented Reality Music

The tip off that Nokia's vision is skewed: all the gear. The woman in the video is wearing two earpieces, a motion-sensitive bracelet, and those awful specs—that's way too much crap to 1) keep charged 2) purchase and 3) wear around in public. I have a relative who once worked for AT&T Labs; in the early 90s he showed me a prototype of this thing, the EO personal communicator.

EO personal communicator

The version I saw had an entire telephone receiver connected to it. No wonder it never caught on, despite its future-forward features. Too much hardware. (And I'm not counting the horrible, unusable N95 that she must have tethered to all that stuff.)

Augmented Reality

Usability? That's not in this video either. In the video's AR system, you can't type; that's why the woman only replies with coy emoticons when her man-friend sends his text messages. And with all that gear on her body, not one piece of it is apparently location-aware; when she gets a message from said man-friend, it overlays his face instead of recognizing that he (and presumably his phone) are directly in front of her. That may seem like a casual omission, but to a company that has been doing Augmented Reality as long as Nokia has, it's a huge oversight. Consider the potential of this person-to-person scenario, as described today in The Independent's article on AR: "The woman over there is called Jane, and right now she's listening to Florence and the Machine on her iPod; you don't know her but you have five mutual friends on Facebook." Privacy issues? Sure, they'll need some massaging. But any AR system should be able to tell when it's your boyfriend rolling up.

Augmented Reality

And yes, Nokia has been doing AR for a long time; at least three years, in fact. The company once had a modern day AR app—in 2007. It was a prototype built on a Nokia 6680 (screenshots below). What ever happened to that project?

Augmented Reality

Nokia's vision of AR also has no sense of history. Again, a scenario from the Independent: "Say you're in Trafalgar Square—by looking at Nelson's Column with your phone's camera, pictures of friends posing with it from three months ago will swim up and fix on your phone's screen, and so will a tweet you wrote there last year." But in this video, there's no sign that any of the news the main character reads has anything to do with where she is, or where she's been. Take the weather view; is this unseasonably warm or cool? What was the weather here like on this day last year? AR is just a fancy techno-term for context, and Nokia's vision provides none of it.

Augmented Reality

So if Nokia's not doing their due research on AR, who is? Check out this article just published by the IEEE about augmented reality contact lenses. Developed by Babak A. Parviz, a nanotechnology researcher at University of Washington, Seattle, the lenses are remarkably close to actual, usable products:

Augmented Reality

"To turn such a lens into a functional system, we integrate control circuits, communication circuits, and miniature antennas into the lens using custom-built optoelectronic components," he says. "Those components will eventually include hundreds of LEDs, which will form images in front of the eye, such as words, charts, and photographs." Right now, the research is limited to putting a few pixels into a lens, but even a handful of indicators could be useful for people with hearing problems, or diabetics who need to monitor glucose.

Augmented Reality It'll be a few years before we get AR contact lenses, but if all this AR talk has you hot and bothered, you can experience the technology in its incipience by getting iPhone apps like Acrossair's NY Subway app, or Yelp's new app. (Shake the phone three times to turn on the augmented reality feature, Monocle, seen below in my living room.) Don't count on Nokia to lead the way.

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