Solving Cities

Video: How 'augmented reality' will make boring cities beautiful

Video: How 'augmented reality' will make boring cities beautiful

Posting in Cities

One of the most sophisticated demos of augmented reality to date transforms a drab model cityscape into a colorful, bustling metropolis

In the near future, as you stroll down the street, billboards and street signs will change to suit your interests. Ghostly arrows will float in the air, pointing you toward your destination. Buildings, vehicles, the apparel of those you pass, and the very fabric of the reality you perceive will all be as changeable as your wardrobe.

That's the vision of futurists and science fiction authors like Vernor Vinge, and increasingly, it's the reality brought to us by ever-more-powerful mobile devices. Some day soon, when our cell phones are connected to display systems compact enough to project images on the inside of eyeglasses, the boundaries between the digital and the real world will simply dissolve.

September 26, technologists will gather in Munich, Germany to demonstrate the progress they've made toward this vision at the annual insideAR augmented reality conference.

In this video, the folks at augmented reality software company Metaio are showing off what's possible with the world's fastest mobile phones. It takes incredible processing power to both recognize the position of a viewer relative to an urban scene and simultaneously overlay it with an arbitrary set of polygons, but that's exactly what the graphics processing units in the new Tegra-2 powered Android phones can do.

But the technology is less important than its implications. Junaio's goal is to "make the digital world surrounding us a natural experience," which means "not just showing some type of information on top of a camera image, but truly embedding the digital information into the real world as a natural experience. That means it has to be accurately aligned to the real world."

Previously, optical tracking for augmented reality applications was limited to two-dimensional objects. But with better hardware, true augmented reality has begun to emerge. All-visual processing of scenes allows for a more-perfect alignment of the "augmented" reality with the real reality than any other technology -- localization via GPS and related technologies just can't cut it, and the accelerometers meant to tell phones their current orientation in space are primitive at best. As Metaio's spokesman notes:

"Now, since the real world is three dimensional -- it's not always a magazine or a movie poster -- we are moving to 3D optical tracking. Which means that we can take any kind of 3D object. It can be curved, but it can be also, like a city, very complex, and use that as a reference for optical tracking."

Once augmented reality is widespread, the difference between a great and a mediocre city won't just be its built environment. To some extent, it will also be the degree to which that environment is a suitable tapestry for the creatives who will paint it with their augmented reality brush. Digital artists who learn to re-appropriate the city with the most innovative augmented reality add-ons won't just bring themselves fame and fortune -- they'll also be attracting others to the places they love.

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Christopher Mims

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Christopher Mims has written for Scientific American, WIRED, Popular Science, Fast Company, Good, Discover, Slate, Technology Review, Nature and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. Formerly, he was an editor at Scientific American, Grist and Seed. He is based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure