We are now entering an augmented reality

A game of Sky Siege.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: One of the greatest innovations in modern spectator sport was on display this weekend. You saw it if you happened to catch a football game at any point, those computer-generated yellow lines that mark first downs.

They're a pretty basic form of a technology known as "augmented reality." AR's been around for a while now, but Marketplace's Steve Henn reports it's going way beyond the football field.


Steve Henn: OK, so let's talk about those yellow lines. Any time a computer layers graphics or audio over an image of your environment and displays it in real-time, that's augmented reality or AR. And it's not just on TV.

Smart phones, like the iPhone and Droid, put all the technology needed to make augmented reality work into the pockets of millions. These phones can track location, and they have cameras and screens. Some of the slickest, most popular apps use this technology to create a clickable world.

Mike Smithwick built the iPhone app external link!Distant Suns.

Mike Smithwick: One time when I was outside looking at the stars, I actually found myself reaching up to click on one of the real stars to find out what it was. About half way up there I thought, no that doesn't work that way.

So Smithwick created an app that does.

Henn: OK, so you turn it on. You turn on the compass. You hold it up to the sky.

Smithwick: There is the moon right there. Sagittarius is there; Pluto, the ex-planet Pluto.

You can click on Pluto and zoom in, or turn and face Jupiter.

Smithwick: Accelerate the clock and watch the moons of whizzing around Jupiter.

Using AR to create a interactive guide to the heavens is just the beginning.

Chris Cameron: Augmented reality is right on the cusp of really entering into the mainstream.

Chris Cameron is an analyst for Read Write Web. He says the number of augmented reality apps is exploding. There are more than 500 now -- everything from video games to tour guides -- a year ago there were just a handful.

Cameron: Mobile's very important, and mobile has been the area of augmented reality that's been growing the fastest.

Big brands like Volkswagen and McDonald's are spending millions on ad campaigns using this technology. You can hold your phone up in the air and see the golden arches popping up over the horizon. You still see the street you're walking on through the camera of your phone but you also see McDonald's virtual icon floating in space, leading you to nearest Quarter-pounder.

And Cameron says toy companies like Lego and Hasbro are catching on too.

Cameron: Play time is a really important sector I think.

The hot toy this Christmas for the kid who has everything might just be the $300 AR Drone. It's a remote control quadricopter. That's a helicopter with four propellers, and it's controlled with an iPhone. It takes off and lands with a touch of a button. It can spin in place, even track its location in a breeze and stay still, hovering over one spot.

But it's the AR -- the augmented reality -- that's really interesting.

Two cameras mounted on the copter send real video to your iPhone and the Drone's processors then create a video game that seems to interact with and take place in the real world. You can fly this drone through your living room and attack digital monsters lurking behind your couch.

And Paul Saffo, a futurist at Stanford, thinks we're all about to start seeing the world this way, with digital images and information layered on top of our view. He thinks as cheap sensors are built into more and more objects, our phones will start talking to them.

Already there's an iPhone app that uses broadcast beacons on commercial airlines to identify the flight numbers and destinations of planes flying overhead.

Paul Saffo: Something that would have required an academic department and tens of thousands of dollars of Air Force money, you can now do for $5 as an app on your iPhone.

Saffo says augmented reality will let the world wide web break free of our computers and extend rich layers of information out into our physical world.

Saffo: We are going from a world of interface to interaction, where we're having conversations with all the physical objects around us.

And they're answering back.

In Silicon Valley, I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: To check out other examples of augmented reality in action head to Marketplace.org. You can even watch a video of that AD drone attacking Jimmy Fallon.

About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.

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