Apple at its developer conference last week was giving a lot of attention to augmented reality. The new iPads are a great viewer for this kind of experimentation, and Apple is taking advantage of the consistent and highly integrated infrastructure that Apple devices provide: operating system, developer community, camera and motion technologies, chip design and security and communications frameworks. Augmented reality looks as though it may slip into the Apple eco-system and the growing Apple media-context with no trouble at all.
These demos are still clearly demos. Demos with coffee cups, penguins and dancing zombies, are simply demos. It is not yet obvious how much use and value augmented reality features will bring. But Apple has good reason to be excited and much of the innovation will come from developers who now have these tools at play and in work. Augmented reality can be distinguished from virtual reality partly in terms of its less ambitious target: it is a way of building virtual objects into our real world experience. Virtual reality, which seeks to create alternative and compelling and highly interactive virtual environments, is also an exciting field and games companies are especially keen to invest in it; but augmented reality seems to have more modest and immediate goals and so may become a fast-moving field because it is easier to envisage small steps through which virtual objects can be introduced into our environment and our practice. To take but one example: it would seem that augmented reality could become incredibly useful and instructional in much the same way that YouTube clips can help us with managing tools. When I first had to put snow chains on a car, YouTube helped me out`. How much better it would have been if the chain kit had a barcode which once I pointed my iPhone at it and OK’ed the assistance, pulled in the appropriate ARKit demo which would show me how to lay out the chains and feed and fix links while I point my iPhone at the car hubs. I still would have needed gloves (and ideally some real friend to hold the phone while I got on my knees) but the context specific-coaching of a virtual chain in virtual gloves would have been a god-send.
The instructional and enactive potential of AR got me to thinking about the way books fit in. Will AR be kind to books? Or to put the matter the other way round will books work sweetly with Augmented Reality? If AR comes to have a big role in education and instructional situations books may become a wonderful resources for AR developers. Here are three reasons why:
(1) books, newspapers and magazines are the repositories of much of our inherited culture (pre 2,000). So they should not be neglected. They have got the past and our history in their covers.
(2) books and print resources have an implicit and evolved structure which is manageable and widely understood (eg librarianship, bibliographies, pages, indexes, footnotes, publication dates, editions, cartoons, atlases, anthologies, and so on). This is messy — but we know how to cope with, and to an extent have already coped with automating the messiness.
(3) books, newspapers, magazines and so on, are already becoming digital. Again they are making this change in a confused, poorly understood and not too well implemented way; but they are getting there. Books and newspapers that are useful in augmented reality will need to be digital to be useful. The penguins that are plonked on the floor in an augmented reality project are not real biological penguins (of course!) they are virtual penguins and the coffee cup that appears to float beneath the table when an iPad is sharply re-oriented to a new viewing perspective is not a real coffee cup. This is where books, newspapers and other documents come in. If they are already digital they should be most welcome.
Conclusion — we can predict an exciting future for digital print resources as augmented reality begins to blossom. Further thought: PDF files and ebooks are or maybe a useful step on the way to sound virtualisation, but we should be careful about chucking away anything from our print heritage as we augment its reality. Kindle-style ebooks seem to be an especially poor inheritance: who wants to look at a Kindle in an augmented reality situation? Especially if the illustrations have been lost, the front cover is invisible in the scene and it is hard to determine which page should be open. Surely it will be much better to work with real-seeming virtualisations of real books, print books and yay! manuscripts! Exact Editions have a lot to be said for them in this context, if only because each page is a URL and each magazine knows to which heap: month, year and decade it belongs. That should be quite a help if a developer wants to plonk a magazine archive on to a desk in augmented reality applications.