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July 6, 2015updated 30 Aug 2016 12:38pm

4 eras when augmented reality was about to change the world but didn’t

They say it's going to happen now, but when exactly do they mean?

By Alexander Sword

"Brazil is the country of the future… and always will be," then-French premier Charles de Gaulle is said to have observed about Latin America’s largest economy in the 1960s.

In a technology context, perhaps the same can be said of augmented reality, which has perennially been on the brink of changing the world but has never quite managed to do so. Augmented reality differs from virtual reality in that it refers to the overlay of digital graphics with an existing image.

According to Gartner’s Hype Cycle, the technology reached the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’ in roughly 2009 before descending into the ‘Trough of Disillusionment.’ So why is augmented reality taking so long to become a reality?

The short answer is it’s not; augmented reality is used regularly in, for example, American Football, whenever digitally generated lines appear across the pitch.

However, it is yet to change our lives, as much as many evangelists would like to assure us it is just about to. As the Google Glass project descends into farce, it’s worth examining how many times it’s been just about to change our lives…


1. 1968-1992: Heady beginnings

"True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings."

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‘Richard III’, William Shakespeare

The earliest roots of augmented reality begin in 1968, when Ivan Sutherland created, in his own words, a "three-dimensional display to present the user with a perspective image which changes as he moves." Too heavy to be carried on the human head, the proto-augmented reality headset was suspended from the ceiling. The device became known as the ‘Sword of Damocles’ for this reason.

Closer to virtual reality than augmented reality, it rendered basic wireframe images of artificial landscapes to the user, with output from a computer programme displayed through the binocular display. Although the device was primitive, Sutherland’s expectations of virtual reality were already advanced by the time he made the device. He commented in 1965:

"A display connected to a digital computer gives us a chance to gain familiarity with concepts not realisable in the physical world. It is a looking glass into a mathematical wonderland."

Introducing somewhat sinister undertones, he added:

"The ultimate display would, of course, be a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal."


2. The 1990s: The first big hype wave crests

"In reality, hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs man’s torments."

‘Human, All Too Human’, Friedrich Nietzsche

As much as Sutherland had high hopes for his creation, true hype can only really begin once a concept has a name. This is usually traced back to Thomas Caudell in the early 1990s, who coined the term while working at Boeing to describe integration of generated graphics with a live environment.

Searching for a way to improve repairs at the airline Caudell had found a way to overlay graphics onto the external world through a headset, helping to guide workers putting together electrical wiring harnesses.

"Combined with head position sensing and a real world registration system, this technology allows a computer-produced diagram to be superimposed and stabilised on a specific position on a real-world object," read the abstract of his 1992 paper on the subject.

Apart from being more specifically defined by Ronald Azuma in 1997, the technology gained little ground throughout the 1990s. However, the late 90s saw the release of the popular ARtoolkit, a software library for AR applications, and 2000 the release of AR-Quake, an AR extension for the desktop game Quake, providing the first mainstream consumer application of the technology.

Again, AR seemed to disappoint, never materialising into anything world-changing.


3. Google Glass: Another harsh dose of reality

"…with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."

‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, Hunter S. Thompson

Right from its announcement in April 2012, many people (or at least, one California-based search giant) had high hopes for Google Glass.

However, the halting of production and termination of its Explorer programme, which allowed developers to buy Glass for $1500, have widely been taken as a humiliating retreat for the augmented reality space.

CEO Eric Schmidt claims it has not been wound down, but it’s clear that the public is generally hostile towards a device that looks manifestly, profoundly uncool (garnering the nickname ‘Glassholes’ for its users) and could be recording you at any moment without warning. Shortly after Glass’s release, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office slammed it for this very reason.


4. Oculus Rift: an uncertain future

"The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."

Eleanor Roosevelt

Hyping up virtual reality has a long, prestigious pedigree, as we have seen. Facebook’s Oculus Rift headset is perhaps the next big hope for augmented reality.

Facebook hasn’t bothered to try and cool off the hype cycle in the latest round. In fact, CEO Mark Zuckerburg claims that augmented reality is just the beginning of a new phase in which humans essentially become large organic streaming devices.

"We used to just share in text, and now we post mainly with photos. In the future video will be even more important than photos. After that, immersive experiences like VR will become the norm. And after that, we’ll have the power to share our full sensory and emotional experience with people whenever we’d like."

Whether you actually want to be able to share your sensory and emotional power with others is a different question. This idea seems particularly unlikely to catch on in Britain, native land of the ‘stiff upper lip’. Still, it seems that the world has not given up on augmented reality quite yet.

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