I went to a British Computer Society talk on Augmented Reality a few weeks ago. The BCS audience is typically highly technical, but the talks themselves are always accessible and entertaining. People often wonder why I am interested in augmented reality, because they assume it has nothing to do with information, but to me it is all about information. I would love to be able to serve up archive content to someone’s mobile phone using location data – a clip of a scene from an episode of their favourite programme that was filmed in that location, or an old news report about an event that took place there. Managing vast data sets containing huge amounts of content in a searchable form will form the backbone of many augmented reality tools and applications. If this isn’t an area that information scientists should be exploring, I don’t know what is!

The speakers were Professor Anthony Steed, Head of Virtual Environments and Computer Graphics at UCL, and Lester Madden, founder and director of Augmented Planet.

They explained the difference between visual search, true augmented reality, and virtual reality. Visual search is using an image as a search term (as in Google Goggles) and then returning results. Because this can be done via a camera, the image can be one that is in the searcher’s immediate environment, and the results can be returned as an soverlay on the original image. True augmented reality is not just adding graphics to an unrelated camera feed, but is responsive to the real surroundings. Virtual reality is an entirely computer-generated environment.

3-D models of the world are being built, but keeping them up to date is proving a challenge, and crowdsourcing may be the only pragmatic option. Another technical challenge suggested was how to render the augmentation visually indistinguishable from “real” vision, which raises all sorts of interesting philosophical and ethical questions about how we handle the behaviour of people who become confused or cease to be able to tell the difference, either temporarily or permanently. At the moment, augmented reality is quite distinct from virtual reality, but eventually the two will presumably meet. However, nobody seems to think that is likely anytime soon.

In the meantime, there was a rather lovely video of an augmented reality audience, designed to help people who have difficulty speaking in public. Apparently, this is a particular problem for those people in the software industry who are not natural extroverts but find that their careers can only advance if they get out from behind the screen and start talking at conferences, trade shows, etc., where audiences can be quite hostile. University students are hopeless at pretending to be a hostile audience – they are too polite, apparently (this week’s events notwithstanding!) – and actors are too expensive. Avatars, however, can be programmed to look bored, chat on their mobiles, get up and walk out, etc., and real people tend to have similar emotional reactions to the behaviour of avatars as they do to other humans, making an augmented reality theatre a perfect place for practising speaking and building confidence.

Augmented reality is also finding practical applications in the construction industry, to create visualisations of buildings before they are constructed, in medicine to help surgeons, and for improved videoconferencing. There are also many ways that augmented reality can be used to sell things – show me information about the restaurant or shoe shop in this street. Amusingly, identifying unique buildings is quite easy, but for the branded chains disambiguation is proving a challenge – their outlets look the same in every town – which brings us back again to familiar information science territory.

There is also a BCS blog post about the event.