Some of the 500,000 visitors expected to walk through the Sculpture by the Sea exhibition on the Sydney coastline this November can be excused for saying they are seeing things that aren't really there.
Visitors carrying an iPhone 3GS or an Android phone will be able to see additional information about the sculptures thanks to augmented reality (AR), a technology which is transitioning from being a novelty for marketers to a useful tool for delivering location-based information.
The Sculpture application is one of a flood of new AR applications. According to a report by ABI Research, revenue associated with augmented reality is predicted to grow from about US$6 million in 2008 to more than US$350 million in 2014.
Early AR was PC-based and required a user to hold up a special symbol (called a marker or glyph, such as a 2D barcode) in front of a computer's camera, which would interpret the signal and download related information. This would be displayed along with the image from the camera on the computer screen. Typically the AR was some form of animation, such as a 3D character walking around on top of the marker.
Recently, developers have been utilising the power of smartphones to combine AR with location-based information, with new services including Layar, Wikitude and NearestWiki. The technology utilises the smartphone's GPS and compass capabilities to determine the users' location and direction, and presents information such as what buildings of note are in a particular direction.
The Sculpture implementation has been created by Sydney-based mobile developer MOB using the Layar AR browser. Managing director Rob Manson says visitors will receive an enhanced experience at the exhibition.
"It will help them navigate around the exhibition, they will be able to see the key sculptures and find out more about those, and link through to the mobile site," Manson says.
Layar is also adding 3D capabilities, which will enable developers to insert 3D objects into the augmented vision. Manson believes the technology will be of particular interest to museums and art galleries.
"We looked at Wikitude and some of the other applications, but with those you have to build your own application and distribute it," he says. "Layar is more like a browser, so it will be installed on a lot of phones."
Brisbane-based My247 is also preparing an iPhone-based AR version, created by Sydney developer TigerSpike, of its guide to 23,000 restaurants, bars and entertainment venues around Australia. The new My247 application should be available through the iTunes store before Christmas.
TigerSpike co-founder Oliver Palmer says AR enhances what consumers do with the application.
"AR is in its infancy," Palmer says. "Where we see it adding value is in using the hyper-local content that My247 has in its database."
Quick response code company Insqribe has also created a service that enables businesses to create their own AR tags for their physical locations.
"We believe that the opportunity lies in actually bringing to life a platform that is an enabler of AR tagging — presenting tracking and measuring AR experiences," says commercial consultant Nick Gonios. "Insqribe wants to be a platform in terms of delivering the AR experience to existing or upcoming mobile apps."
The company hopes to have its application in the iTunes store by early 2010.
One of the dangers of a proliferation of AR technologies is that the market will fragment into multiple non-compatible technologies, although a proposal exists for the creation of a standardised Augmented Reality Mark-up Language.
"Unfortunately there will be this fragmentation, and then there will be some form of consolidation down the track," Gonios says. "But there are over 100,000 iPhone apps that all do their own thing, so our view is that if your app is designed for a specific function and target audience, that has merit to stay the same, and then in addition you can add AR to it to create a rich experience."
PC-based AR has a much longer history, based on technologies such as Papervision3D, and has primarily been used for online marketing campaigns.
Co-founder of the New Zealand-based digital marketing agency The Hyperfactory, Geoffrey Handley, says his firm has been working with AR almost four years.
Last year it created an AR application for Coca-Cola in Europe that enabled users to play "tennis" with another user. A new project will see The Hyperfactory implement AR in a site for Toyota around the Baja 5000 off-road racing series, using feeds from cameras within the cars.
"We are constantly trying to find a balance between utility and entertainment, and I think AR, if we use it well, is able to strike that balance," Handley says.
Much of what is happening on PCs has been developed in the Flare toolkit, based on Adobe's Flash. Adobe Flash product manager Richard Galvan says that while the technology has been available for some time, developers are becoming more creative.
"For a long time people have been using AR to do some pretty cool marketing campaigns, because there was a wow factor and you could get people to look at it — but once you have seen three or four, they all kind of look the same," Galvan says.
But he points to an application from the US Postal Service to help people determine what size box they needed for posting bulky items as a sign of things to come. The user places an item within the field of view of a camera, with the computer then projecting different size boxes until the user selects one that the item fits within.
At its Max Conference held in Los Angeles in early October Adobe demonstrated numerous Flash-based AR projects, including one from the Australian creative technology business Boffswana (a part of the Omnilab media group), featuring an animated Sasquatch.
Business development manager Paul Curtain says Boffswana has also created AR-based karaoke application for Sony, and a music-mixing application for Wriggly 5 chewing gum in Europe.
"You could print out multiple glyphs and place them in front of a webcam, and each of those glyphs would trigger a 3D asset and a music asset that related to each of the flavours of the gum," Curtain says. "By positioning those glyphs you could ramp up the volume, or adjust the pitch."
Developers have also been experimenting with different media rather than simple markers. At Microsoft's Imagine Cup student develop contest held in Cairo in July a team from Israel demonstrated an interface involving computer-recognisable symbols pasted on the sides of a Rubik's cube. A game was then overlaid, involving an animated character walking across the Cube's surface, which the player could interact with by twisting the sides.
Palmer says future generations of the technology will incorporate image recognition from the handset, so that it need not rely on the GPS and compass features which can be inaccurate in built environments.
"The next release (of the My247 application), when some of the additional functionality is around, will give that interpretation of the images coming through the camera," he says.
But despite the enthusiasm of developers, it may be some time before AR becomes mainstream. According to Adobe's chief technology officer Kevin Lynch, there are still technical issues to be overcome.
"It's pushing the edges of performance of the computing devices right now, like rendering the 3D model and having streaming audio and trying to do the camera detection to find the object on the paper," Lynch says. "That's a lot of computing, and it's just at the point where it is possible to do.
"It's emerging and it's new, and people are still figuring out what to do with it. We will see a lot more of it in our daily life, the blending of physical reality with online reality."
Brad Howarth travelled to Max as a guest of Adobe.