Augmented Reality turns digital into physical
Sometimes, the real world just isn't enough. When you're late for an appointment, for example, and rushing down the high street on foot, wouldn't it be great if big red arrows, visible only to you, could hover in front of your eyes, showing you the way with every step? Or when you're staring up at the night sky after a romantic evening, how about some information - star names, distance in light years, etc - on the constellations you're viewing, which you can confidently relay to an impressed companion?
Now all that, and more, is becoming possible. Augmented Reality (AR) technologies offer us the chance to live in the world we know, made better: more information-rich, more navigable, more interesting, more fun. And they do that by overlaying digital content across our view of our physical surroundings.
AR is nothing new. But now, thanks to next-generation technologies, it's reaching maturity: and it's set to change the way we live. To get a handle on what is ahead, it pays to first look at the range of AR apps already available.
Take Spyglass, an iPhone app that - just as imagined above - overlays navigation data over any view of the real world. Simply point your iPhone down the street and follow the on-screen directions. Prefer the romantic scenario? Then try The Night Sky: point your iPhone or Android device at the sky and you'll instantly get a full on-screen guide to the stars you can see, thanks to GPS technology and online connectivity.
It should come as no surprise that the big tech players are moving in on AR. Google has just announced the release of the map-based AR adventure game Ingress (www.ingress.com) - taglined "The world around you is not what it seems" - in which players move around the real world completing quests and collecting information. More will be revealed about the end point of the game as the player base grows and the story develops.
But these apps don't go halfway towards realising the potential of AR. Technology already at the prototype stage, however, does. Take the Google Glasses (plus.google.com/+projectglass) unveiled this year by the Google co-founder Sergey Brin. A fairly ordinary-looking pair of glasses on first sight, they will overlay digital information across the view of the wearer and respond to voice commands.
Walk down the street wearing Google Glasses and your world will be an altogether new kind of offline/online hybrid: look at a restaurant and you'll see reviews by previous diners. Look at the sky and weather information will surface. Imagine the vast array of workplace uses, too: paramedics who can look at an injured patient and immediately "see" information on how to treat her. It's another aspect of a megatrend that is fundamental to our times: the blurring of the lines between the physical and the digital spaces so that the distinction is becoming increasingly meaningless.
Google says that its glasses will be commercially available in 2014. Once that happens, it may spell the end of the smartphone era and the start of something even more revolutionary.
The clearest sign yet that it's going to be huge? In July, news emerged that Apple had filed a patent for its own AR glasses device. Last week, Microsoft followed suit. When the world's three tech giants prepare for war, you know the disputed territory has to be worth the fight.