Fifty years after its invention by the British Royal Navy for use by fighter pilots, the technology of layering information on top of our naked view of the world may cross over the line between science fiction and mass consumer experience as soon as next month. It's widely believed that the operating system for the iPhone 3Gs will be updated this Fall, possibly in September, to allow developers to use the phone's location awareness and internal compass to orient displays of information and imagery placed on top of the view through the camera.

"The internet smeared all over everything." An "enchanted window" that turns contextual information hidden all around us inside out. A platform that will be bigger than the Web. Those are the kinds of phrases being used to describe the future of what's called Augmented Reality (AR), by specialists developing the technology to enable it. Big questions remain unanswered, though, about the viability of what could be a radical next step in humanity's use of computers.

Let's set aside for now questions about the desirability of Augmented Reality. Some people will be wary of its consequences for social interaction - even for spiritual practices already based on engaging with other layers of the world around us. Those questions deserve exploration, but the potential of AR is exciting enough that obstacles are worth discussing aside from objections. Augmented Reality is in some ways just another version of the web; a web applied, through novel interfaces, in reference to the physical world, instead of floating documents tied only to each other as the web is today.

Early Examples

Early examples that Google Android phone owners can use now and that all iPhone 3Gs owners will probably be able to use very soon include:

  • Layar, a browser for layers of information about things like restaurant reviews and Wikipedia entries and Brightkite social network entries for places you point your phone at. Here's the list so far.

  • Wikitude, an AR wiki that displays collaboratively edited information about locations when you point your phone's camera at a place.

  • Acrossair's Nearest Subway App


Not all work in Augmented Reality is going on in mobile phones. There are webcam marker-based implementations like ARSights and projector-powered experiments as well, but AR coming to the iPhone will be a key turning point in popularizing the technology.

It's very exciting to think about, but it might not work. Here are five of the challenges faced by the small but fast-growing industry of Augmented Reality.

Spam and Security

Sci-fi author Bruce Sterling gave a keynote talk at Layar's global launch event this month. His hour-long discussion of potentials and pitfalls included in-depth warnings that security and spam will be major issues. Imagine being drowned in swarming icons for porn or pharmaceuticals! Imagine having your view of reality not just augmented but hacked and controlled by ill-intentioned people.

Sterling says it's not a matter of if, but of when. If AR companies don't prepare for this, they will be caught unaware and users will be turned off in a big way.

Social and Real-Time vs. Solitary and Cached

If AR experiences can be designed for people to experience them together, and if people in different places can touch each other's experiences in real time, then AR is going to be a whole lot stickier. That presents serious technical challenges.

So will being able to show users rich information about things they point their phones at. Visions of rich AR are tempered by imagining the buffer time whenever a widely-used AR app is launched.

UX

The User Experience (UX) of AR presents no end of challenges as well. Social conventions are one factor. Why are you pointing your phone at me while we're talking? "Because I want to see if a link to your Twitter profile will hover above your head." Maybe not.

Joe Lamantia wrote a long post about UX design considerations for the future of AR and argues that the two primary questions at hand are: what information will we turn inside out from hidden context to presented interface layer? And can we find any better interfaces for viewing that information than we have today in the models that are available so far?

Interoperability

Right now you cannot see information from the Wikitude AR environment if you're looking through the Layar AR browser. This could be the coming of a new browser war just like that of the 1990s. It may not be obvious and it may not even be true that users have a right to view any layer of Augmented Reality through any Augmented Reality browser.

Interoperability, standards and openness have been what has let the Web scale and flourish beyond the suffocating walled gardens of its early days. The same is true of telephones, railroads and countless other networked technologies. Logically then, a lack of interoperability between AR environments would be a tragedy of the same type as if the web had remained defined by the islands of AOL and Compuserve or Internet Explorer, forever. (A lack of data portability when it comes to Augmented Reality could cause substantial psychological distress!)

Layar, the most high-profile AR consumer company on the market, says it's in full support of interoperability. It has published its documentation publicly and co-founder Maarten Lens-FitzGerald told us the following by phone today:

"I think it's going to be very important. We're open to talking to anybody and seeing what we can make happen. Anyone who creates a service on our platform can publish elsewhere. Our reach will be in installations and content and making sure other parties are on there. We don't do negative things. The lock-ins and exclusivity won't work. Openness and interoperability are where it's going; we're going to discover how exactly with other people. I used to work with VRM and Doc Searls. That's where it's going: control to the user."

Those are encouraging words, but Lens-FitzGerald says that no legal work has been done by his company to encourage an open development standard free of legal fears for developers.

Openness

The most exciting AR programs will be platforms that encourage other people to develop layers of content they then display. That's the Layar model. Hundreds of companies are developing layers for that system on the Android mobile phone. Layar has said that content developers will be able to sell layers to users in the future - a Lonely Planet layer is something travelers might buy, for example.

What kind of standards will AR platforms have in deciding which layers their users can see? Is that the right question? Will we have Augmented Reality Neutrality? Or will we have an AR version of the fickle, anachronistic, tiny despots of the iPhone App Store? I have a right to Augment my Reality with whatever information I want! "Not while you're using our AR browser/network/handset/etc.!" It's not hard to imagine the coming of a Firefox for AR.

Layar says it will be that open platform. It may not remain the leader of this very young market, though.

Added value, social experiences, real-time information delivery, user experience, interoperability and openness - those are the problems of the web! So too goes the development of Augmented Reality, the web of everywhere.

It's a lot of Wow and skepticism right now, but in the future it could be a thriving ecosystem of rich information about the world around us. Or it could be a closed, proprietary (literal) lens through which we view the world - unable to change the way we view that world or see it as others do because our accumulated knowledge is trapped inside one platform and inaccessible from others. Or there could be a plague of spam that overwhelms our view-finder into our physical surroundings.

The future is being built now and smart people are tackling these problems.

This post is heavily indebted to GamesAlfresco, a great blog we just discovered that's closely tracking AR. That's where we found the title image, many of the links here and several of the videos. Big thanks to site authors Ori Inbar and Rouli Nir.