On Tuesday of this week, Augmented Reality actually trended on Twitter. This surprised me, as it meant that a large number of people have been exposed to this exciting technology. Even Google Trends shows the number of searches for "augmented reality" overtaking searches for "virtual reality".
Augmented reality is when artificial metadata or even 3d objects are injected into reality, usually as an enhancement. The most common example that most people have seen is the first-down line in football on TV. While a simple example and only viewable on TV, it does help express the usefulness and novel applications of this technology.
In September, it's rumoured that Apple will make augmented reality available to iPhone users, with the launch of the 3.1 OS. The addition of the magnetometer (digital compass) and live video on the iPhone 3GS are instrumental in allowing proper augmented reality applications. The compass allows developers to determine which way you are facing. If you combine this with the GPS and video capabilities, then you can overlay images, objects, text, etc. on top of things in the real world.
This alone would be exciting, but where it really starts to get interesting is when people get tired of holding up their phones in front of them all the time. The iPhone and iPod already brought back video glasses, such as the Myvu, from obscurity when Apple introduced video playback. Unfortunately, most video glasses make you look like a tool or a failed Star Trek rip-off castmember.
This is where companies like Lumus, Vuzix, Microvision, or even Sony come in. Using OLEDs or micro-projection components, they're actually creating glasses that are both small, see-through (in the optical sense, not the video method that older VR used), and what is probably oddly most important, fairly normal looking. These devices will continue to get smaller, more attractive, and more affordable for users rapidly. Vuzix's glasses are set to launch around fall of this year, while most of the other companies are planning on launching their glasses around 2010.
Of course, glasses are still fairly bulky and while most people are fine wearing sunglasses when it's bright out, there might be more objections to wearing glasses all the time, as current glasses wearers can attest. After glasses, contact lenses are likely to be the preferred method of wearing video displays, probably available around 2025 or so.
All-in-all, it's a very exciting time for augmented reality. Below are some videos of the various things discussed and a multitude of applications that either already exist or are being worked on today. Now if I could just convince some of these companies to send me some demo units so I can get to work on more applications...