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ar iphone

from the Globe and Mail

Ivor Tossell

Published on Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009 9:39PM EDT Last updated on Monday, Oct. 19, 2009 7:58AM EDT

On a starry night a couple of months ago, I stood on a beach and watched as my cousins stared at the heavens through an iPhone.

It’s fun to play the age-old guessing game about whether that’s Cassiopeia or space junk or a formation of exceedingly well-lit ducks. (I’ve always felt that astronomy is more fun for the poorly informed.) But why hypothesize when there are iPhone applications that, pointed straight at the sky, will overlay the stars with little labels and tell you exactly what you’re looking at?

Sometimes it’s easier to just know. And love it or lump it, a world in which we just know things is one we’re about to enter.

Sci-fi tech now available at an App Store near you

What has happened to us since our reality has been augmented? I’ll tell you when the apathy wears off.

Download (.mp3)

The phenomenon already has a name: “augmented reality.” It is getting bigger by the day. Just last week, a batch of new AR applications appeared for iPhones and their ilk – apps that do the same trick as the stargazing software, except for the waking world.

It’s possible to point a camera at a road, and not just take a picture, but to have the live scene overlaid with information about the world around. Think cyborg vision, Terminator-style, except instead of identifying the faces of people you’ve travelled back in time to kill, the digital readouts are highlighting tasty Indian joints on your block. It’s roughly the same thing.

A good example is UrbanSpoon, the semi-famous application that uses GPS to determine where you’re standing and then locate restaurants that are close to you. A just released update takes this idea one step further: point your phone’s camera at a restaurant, and – with just a couple of taps – Urbanspoon will tell you what it serves, how expensive it is and how other diners have reviewed it.

Other apps take the idea even further. One, called Layar, even spots things you may not be able to see. Demonstration videos show developers standing on a Toronto rooftop, pointing their phone’s video camera at a thicket of downtown buildings. On the phone’s screen, the image is overlaid with the ghostly outlines of the subway stations hidden amongst the towers, as if seen with X-ray vision.

(In practice, these tools are still evolving. A friend, trying the iPhone apps for the first time this week, was nonplussed. “Layar seems to believe there’s a Tim Horton’s location on my desk,” he reported.)

“ For all the fretting about whether Google makes us stupid or Wikipedia destroys learning or Facebook has left the concept of friendship a burnt-out husk of its former self, the information age has not changed the basic facts of life”

You actually might already own one of these gadgets. The critical component is the built-in compasses that came with newer phones. They tell the device which way it’s facing; in combination with built-in GPS, this lets the phone to figure out what in the world it’s being pointed at. None of this should surprise us. Our realities have been augmenting themselves for a while now. Users of iPhones have grown accustomed to having devices that can tell them anything they need to know about their surroundings, even without the benefit of a camera. One of my favourite applications, a program called AroundMe, pulls up a list of amenities in walking distance, be it drug stores or movie theatres. It’s like a digital dowsing stick, leading me not just to the nearest fast-food joint when lost deep in some American suburb, but to coffee shops in my own backyard that I never knew were there.

It works in much the same way as Shazam, another ballyhooed iPhone application, can name most any song that’s playing from a nearby speaker – and cheerfully offer to sell you a digital copy. It’s the audio equivalent of augmented reality: your aural environment, annotated.

Confronted with technological shifts like this, most people have a two-stage reaction. Stage 1: Awe and admiration. Stage 2: Bug-eyed freak-out. Don’t fret. It’s alright to be alarmed when a technology that appears to have been ripped from science fiction appears in your pocket, especially when it draws an immediate comparison to Robocop.

This is doubly true when it comes with an obnoxious name like “augmented reality,” which implies that the reality that’s served us just fine so far, thank-you very much, is inadequate and needs to be enhanced with some silicon.

Jason Logan

Part of the unease stems from the fear that as computers get smarter, we get dumber. Over the years, critics have wondered whether the abundance of readily available information leads to know-nothing humans. Why discover your neighbourhood when your computer knows more than you ever will? Why memorize music catalogues when your iPhone can name any song for you? Why look at the stars when you can look at a digital star chart?

I don’t think that’s the case, though. Yes, we’re entering an age where augmented reality gadgets will answer questions about what’s before us with ever-less effort. But, for all the fretting about whether Google makes us stupid or Wikipedia destroys learning or Facebook has left the concept of friendship a burnt-out husk of its former self, the information age has not changed the basic facts of life. And one of them is that factual knowledge counts for very little in the greater scheme of things.

Another fact of life, I think, is that it’s obnoxious to use an iPhone on the beach. But the age of knowing by looking will be a joy for the curious. Being able to know the stars doesn’t diminish the wonder of looking at them.

Mon, October 19 2009 » Futurecinema_2009, augmented reality, mobility