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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  • Nicholas Burton

    I disagree as well. The whole idea of augmented reality is to supplement our real world experience using graphics, audio, and other sense related enhancements. Although Nokia’s device is less helpful and more for entertainment purposes, it is a step in the right direction. In 1968 when Doug Engelbart gave his groundbreaking demonstration, the computer he used performed what were at the time complex operations, but would be probably be considered menial tasks in today’s era of digital technology. The important thing was that the concepts and ideas behind the operating system were built upon and have resulted in the development of machines with a much greater capacity. For me, the more interesting question would be, that as we continue to move forward with AG technology, will people become less human and more machine? I mean, how far are we really willing to push these pursuits of blurring the line between reality and a computer generated environment?

  • Joe Purk

    The title of the video is Mixed Reality. You are talking about Augmented Reality. Slightly different IMHO. Your post makes no sense in this context or you linked the wrong video.

  • Matthew Potter

    I'm sorry, but I could not disagree more. Nokia has been envisioning a future similar to this for quite some time. Previously using animation to give the lifestyle look that they have, most effectively I might add, portrayed in this new one.

    These video interpretations are the vision that Nokia has for the future. They are not advertisements for products that they are currently releasing but are rather investor focused and techno-lust enthusiasts. If Nokia is putting the funding into these technologies, I applaud them. There is no obvious short term returns on these dreams but the long term return and technology advancement that they would bring are outstanding.

    You may think that augmented reality is going to be stuck with cell phones, flash players and contact lenses but each of those has draw backs. Cell phones are tied to carriers, whom you would be hard pressed to find 8 out of 10 users not complaining about. Flash or computer based versions are limited to single location or clunky laptops so the practicality is lost for anything but home use. And the contact lens solution would generally be fine without the exception that most people would have a hard time managing to maintain them. It is hard enough to get teens and young adults (who are normally the first to generally jump into new technologies) to maintain their regular contacts or clean up after themselves, let along care for technology that you would be putting essentially within yourself.

    Admittedly, the glasses are a bit cheesy and the hand motions are obviously fake however with something like the bracelet and ring which have been demonstrated in other Nokia 'dream-escapes' motion and interaction with another device would seem possible even by today's standards.

    I thank you for your article but I for one fully back what they are trying to do and would much prefer to go this route than something like that Yelp is providing.

  • Barry Dennis

    AnyThing,AnyTime, AnyWhere (AAA).
    It's coming.
    There are some issues; the Infrastructure that delivers multiple applications that are always on, even if running in the background. The AAA device that allows multiple apps to run simultaneously, while managing frequencies; and the need for the device to "morph" into the shape needed for the current application(s).

  • JP Gary

    This isn't augmented reality, the video does not demonstrate content being related to the environment. They also do not call this augmented reality instead "Mixed Reality". There is no Augmenting the environment through a digital 'eye'. Comparing this to actual augmented reality apps doesn't make sense to me, none of the content is location aware, and this video is demonstrating something else.