There's something startling and incredible about aiming your smartphone at a painting and watching the man in it come to life. Everything else in the frame looks the way it always does — your desk cluttered with Post-It notes and pens, your glass of water sweating in the August heat — but the painted man has passed through some invisible filter and is now moving and talking and even pouring himself a drink. Is this really your office, or have you somehow been transported into Harry Potter's Gryffindor House?
As global head of innovation and partnerships at Aurasma, Matt Mills oversees the company's ongoing efforts to augment reality. Launched last summer, Aurasma and its users have created numerous video, music and 3-D animation "auras," including a map of the Olympic Stadium in London that, when viewed through a smartphone, offered a 3-D exploration of the park.
Mills spoke with us about the remarkable ways he's seen people use Aurasma, his company's achievements in the last year and the future of augmented reality.
What is augmented reality?
Technically speaking, looking through one of those old kaleidoscopes is augmenting reality. Anytime you are changing the way that the world looks or enhancing the world through some thing, you are augmenting it. It's a relatively broad description. Of course, the way that people think of it in our modern world, it's using some sort of technology device to gather information that exists somewhere and bring it into the real world in an extremely convenient way.
When we first started Aurasma, we referred to it as a visual browser because that was seen as a very easy way to explain what it was. You look at something [through a smartphone or tablet] and then you find out more. But in reality, augmenting reality can be very, very broad. There are so many applications for it.
Let's talk about some of those applications. Which sectors are utilizing AR?
Over 20 percent of our users are in education. Schools love it. What's great about our technology is it's very easy for teachers to create these augmented experiences. That's a huge area for us and it will be going forward.
How have you seen teachers and schools use AR?
There's a teacher in Australia who has created homework assignments where she puts markers on some of the pages so if the kids get stuck they can borrow their parents' phones and then scan that particular page to see additional information which might help in their answer.
We've also seen augmented classrooms. We've got teachers who have put up pictures inside the classroom for Parents Day so that parents can walk around, point at a picture, find out which kid painted it and see a little video from the kid explaining it.
At a more senior level, we have a university that has an augmented campus. They have posters around the campus for freshers when they start so they can find out what's inside a particular building or find out more from the little campus guides they get when they join.
What other uses have you seen?
We had a guy in New Zealand create an augmented comic book—a magical comic book that came to life. There are also applications in things like medicine. One of the nice things about AR is that you don't have to touch things and you don’t have to type things. So rather than searching for records on a computer, you can look at them through a smartphone and find out additional information.
So one of the main goals is to give people more information than you can fit on a poster or printed page?
Absolutely. Very often, people will start a browsing experience in a particular place. Maybe they start at Google, go to one of the website results, then search around. They're honing in on the information they want. This can be similar, but the nice thing is we're using visual triggers. Very often the triggers can be common, they can be quite simple, but as you say, they can hide a huge amount of information underneath.
What about some of the personal uses you've seen or envision for AR?
Cards are a big one. A lovely lady I used to work with sent me a very sweet card once saying, Happy birthday, Matt. It's a sweet card, and she'd made a little video of herself wishing me happy birthday. She placed it in the middle of my desk so when I got in that morning I could scan it and have a little welcome message from her.
What changes and improvements have you made to Aurasma since it launched last summer?
There are lots of things. We started off looking at how we could bring 3-D elements into an augmented world. Now we can do cinema-quality models that get signed off on by some of the biggest directors in Hollywood, Steven Spielberg or Peter Jackson. We've done some incredible DVD covers for these guys and Universal Pictures where you can see scenes from the films that they think are so realistic, they actually signed off on them themselves.
Who else do you see as active players in the augmented-reality sphere?
No one's really doing what we do. No one's really going out there and trying to make AR scalable, accessible and open to everybody. We are very uniquely placed.
Having said that, there have been some companies that have done some really interesting things. Simple things, but very nice. Then there are some very flashy augmented experiences, too, but they tend to be one-offs. A particular brand will have an augmented-reality car and you have to download an 18 megabyte application to see it and you'll use it maybe once. What no one else has really done is come up with this idea that if AR's going to take off it has to be scalable and you have to have user-generated content at the core. Right now we're very alone in our market in that way.
In which countries are people most engaged with Aurasma?
We're live in over 100 countries now. The USA is, in terms of numbers, is our biggest market. Then we have the UK. Then Japan. Japan generally does very well. When we have an aura live in Japan, quite often it will be our most-viewed aura of that particular day because the Japanese market is really receptive to augmented really. The same is true of the Netherlands. The Netherlands really get it.
Do you see augmented reality eventually moving past needing a smartphone or tablet?
Who knows. There's a great video someone sent me the other day of contact-lens-based AR, which looked great. All of this stuff is coming. Right now, we work with the phones because they're powerful enough to do it and they're relatively ubiquitous. But in the future, yes, contact lenses, eyewear, who knows. Really, who knows.
What's your vision for AR in the future?
Personally speaking, I want to go into a supermarket and see someone pick up a product, scan it with their phone and look really unhappy that that particular product from that one brand doesn’t work. To get into the assumption that when you pick something up and scan it, it's going to work. I think that's the key thing: Once users start assuming they can scan things, the AR industry's going to take off very, very quickly. Right now we're seeing it in certain niches. In time, I think you'll start to see a degree of ubiquity with that particular user behavior.
How close are we to seeing that degree of adoption?
I wouldn’t want to guess. I just don’t know. Put it like this: We are seeing a very strong growth at the moment. We're seeing growth above and beyond what we were expecting. We are currently where we were expecting to be in another year's time. We're definitely moving in the right direction very quickly, but it could be a year, it could be two years, it could be five years before the industry really explodes.
What's in store for Aurasma in the immediate future?
A lot of what we work on are performance improvements. We're always looking to make things happen faster, happen better, happen bigger. That's most of what we're working on right now. The other thing is we're an R&D-focused business, so every week we're trying things — the things you'd expect us to try: tracking multiple objects and being able to do really advanced games. Then when we find one that works we tend to release it in weeks. We tend not to have stuff that's a long way on the horizon. We tend to just find that it works and then release it.
Photo by Kevin Abosch