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Intelligent Machines

The Year in Enhancing Reality

3-D and augmented reality made it big in 2010—with a few pitfalls.

2010 saw an explosion of 3-D products for consumers and also the arrival of augmented reality as a mainstream technology. In both areas, however, only some commercial implementations proved ready for prime time.

More than real: These glasses provide augmented reality for $1,995.

3-D TVs, Cameras, and Camcorders Galore

3-D was a hot topic at the start of the year, partly because of the 3-D blockbuster movie Avatar, which came out last December. Many predicted that 3-D technology would move quickly from the movie theater into the home, and major electronics companies including Panasonic, Mitsubishi, Sony, Philips, and Toshiba announced plans to release 3-D televisions and Blu-ray players (Home 3-D: Here, or Hype? and Here Come the High-Definition 3-D TVs). But obstacles—particularly the need to wear 3-D glasses costing upwards of $100 per pair and the limited amount of 3-D content available to watch (a handful of DVDs and few TV transmissions)—have prevented 3-D TVs from becoming wildly popular, at least for now (Will 3-D Make the Jump from Theater to Living Room?).

In an effort to make the technology more enticing, some companies are developing glasses-free 3-D displays. Each lens in a pair of 3-D glasses filters a different image, which fools the brain into responding as if to a three-dimensional image. To ditch the glasses, the display has to produce alternating images very rapidly, and the user has to sit in just the right place relative to the screen. While most people would prefer not to have to wear 3-D glasses, few will be happy with this constraint. Fortunately, Microsoft has figured out a way around the problem—a screen that detects the viewer’s position and shows different images to each eye. Although it’s still in the research stages, the technology will allow one or two people to see a 3-D image on a screen, regardless of where in the room they are sitting (3-D Without the Glasses).

Glasses-free 3-D technology may be more suitable for handheld devices, whose users typically view the screen from a particular position anyway. The first phone featuring this type of 3-D tech was released this year (TR10: Mobile 3-D). Nintendo sees a different market for it: last January, the company announced plans to release a glasses-free 3-D gaming system (Nintendo Plans Glasses-Free 3D Console), potentially as early as next year.

A few researchers are looking into the possible side effects of viewing 3-D (with glasses or without). A small number of moviegoers complain of headaches or eye strain after watching 3-D movies, and some scientists argue that viewing 3-D—which, after all, tricks the brain into seeing something that’s not there—is responsible. But more research is needed (Is 3D Bad for You?).

The Dawn of AR

Smart phones helped usher in another reality-altering technology this year, as many new augmented-reality games and mapping applications were released.

Companies including Layar, Wikitude, and Qualcomm released AR apps for smart phones. Users point a phone’s camera at something and see an image overlaid with floating information, such as directions, the names of buildings, historical photos, or restaurant reviews. One app even shows people’s latest Twitter and Facebook updates floating around their heads (Augmented Identity). Businesses are starting to get on board with AR apps for advertising (Augmented Reality Lacks Bite for Marketers).

Researchers have found other applications for AR (Augmented-Reality Floor Tiling and Treating Cockroach Phobia With Augmented Reality). Even big companies like GM have been experimenting with AR—for instance, to help improve car safety (GM Develops Augmented Reality Windshield). One collaborative AR experiment used sophisticated tracking to ensure that two people simultaneously saw the same virtual elements in physical space (Collaborative Augmented Reality Makes Beautiful Music).

Having to view the world through the screen of a smart phone is tiresome, so some companies are working to bring affordable, lightweight AR glasses to consumers. These could provide a more immersive AR experience (Augmented Reality Goggles) and help AR become more common, and more useful.

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