email a friend iconThe Big Idea
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Photo: Steven Henderson and Steven Feiner, Computer Graphics and User Interfaces Lab, Columbia University

The U.S. Marine Corps is testing AR technology developed at Columbia University to train mechanics. They don headgear that projects animated 3-D computer graphics onto the equipment under repair, labeling parts and giving step-by-step guidance. "The marines worked faster with our AR program than with laptop-based manuals," says Steven Feiner, a computer scientist at Columbia.

Early adopters can test out the world's first augmented-reality glasses for consumers, from a U.S. company called Vuzix. They look like wraparound sunglasses, except you can't see directly through the lenses. Instead, small cameras centered on the outside of each lens feed continuous video through a mobile computer (say, an iPhone) to an LCD screen mounted inside each lens. So you look at the world indirectly, through the two tiny cameras' feed. (And without a panoramic field of view, you'll have to be careful where you walk.) The price for the glasses with cameras is about $600.

When connected to an iPhone, an iPod, or a PC for at-home gaming, the glasses combine computer input with the live video, creating a single stereoscopic field of view on the LCD, where computer graphics merge with the real world. Paul Travers, president of Vuzix, says that in the near future video glasses will deliver spectacular AR effects. "Instead of a little cell phone display, you'll have an image on the LCD that looks like an IMAX theater filling your field of view."

The next stage in the evolution of AR is taking shape in the lab of Babak Parviz, an associate professor of bio-nanotechnology at Seattle's University of Washington. Parviz has made a contact lens etched with a tiny, transparent electronic circuit that contains a single LED. Over the next several years he hopes to add hundreds of LEDs to the lens, allowing it to display text and images that would appear to hover in space at a readable distance in front of the eye. "With enough processing power, the lens could translate speech into text in real time and display it for deaf people," says Parviz. The lens would be powered wirelessly by radio waves transmitted from a cell phone in your pocket.

But for many users, AR might add to the toll that distracting technologies take on personal interaction. Scott Rigby, founder of Immersyve, a research group that studies the psychological effects of video games, wonders: "What will the consequences be of immersing yourself in a world that is isolated from the person standing next to you?" Welcome to reality 2.0.
—Tim Folger

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