Academic and company research groups have developed augmented reality applications, which superimpose virtual objects and information on top of the real world, for more than a decade. But until the past year or so, all of these prototype applications required bulky headsets and laptop computers. With more powerful sensors, cameras, and microprocessors built into mobile phones, however, augmented reality applications have begun hitting the mainstream. Several apps take advantage of the GPS chips and compasses available in newer smart phones. For example, PresseLite’s Metro Paris app and Acrossair’s Nearest Tube provide iPhone users with directions to nearby subway stops.
But Gärdenfors calls such applications “relatively crude.” They often obscure objects with labels, he notes, and are sometimes limited by the fact that location information may not be available. He thinks that many augmented reality services could benefit from including elements of computer vision to make information retrieval and label positioning more precise. “This could absolutely work for other kinds of objects, and I think we’ll see that soon,” he says.
However, Gärdenfors notes that using computer vision to identify buildings and other objects holds challenges that they didn’t encounter in developing the augmented ID application. “With facial recognition, it’s so obvious what you want to search for,” says Gärdenfors. “With other objects, it may be harder to tell which item on the screen you want to identify.”
Gärdenfors says that TAT has taken potential privacy concerns with the technology seriously from the beginning. “Facial recognition can be a kind of scary thing, and you could use it for a lot of different purposes.” For that reason, the company designed Recognizr as a strictly opt-in service: people would have to upload a photo and profile of themselves, and associate that with different social networks before anyone could use the service to identify them. “You should only be able to look at people who have signed up for this,” Gärdenfors says.
A concept video of the augmented ID application that TAT posted on YouTube last summer garnered a great deal of attention. Gärdenfors says the company often uses this strategy to determine which ideas justify further development. A live demonstration also received a lot of interest at the Mobile World Congress. “We’re probably going to partner with some company over the next couple of months to take it to the next level and actually build [a product],” Gärdenfors says. While this will require partnerships with a device maker, a mobile service provider, and social networking services, the technology is developed enough that a commercial application could be ready in as little as a month or two, he says.