Is this for real 

...or is this just fantasy?

Caught in a presentation on Augmented Reality, I discovered that all our phones, TV’s, laptops and tablets will be redundant within a few years. Inbuilt obsolescence isn’t just here to stay. It’s galloping ahead of us poor mortals—or so those in the industry would have you believe. After seeing it in action, I’m not so sure. Have I seen the future of technology? Yes. Is it going to be all it’s cracked up to be? The jury’s still out on that, as far as I’m concerned. Read on, and decide for yourself.

What I saw in a presentation on Augmented Reality (AR) at the Hereford College of Arts in early February was a real eye-opener. I know less than nothing about technology. I was only there as chauffeur to my son (an under-age apprentice techie) but within seconds I was hooked. Pulling my fingers out of my ears I stopped la-la-laing along to Bohemian Rhapsody, and started listening to the presentation.

The technology behind Augmented Reality overlays images onto the real-life landscape around the user is viewing through their phones, screens or whatnot. It’s at the heart of the Pokemon Go craze, which sees players walk in front of buses to catch a cartoon creature sitting in the road and visible only to them. Mark Zuckerburg, CEO of Facebook, has gone on record as saying that Augmented Reality systems will replace anything with a ‘normal’ screen. Microsoft have developed the Hololens, a set of goggles ready to do just that.

Goggles? Are the gaming generation so uncool they’ll wear goggles to get their fix? 3-D glasses for watching TV or films were a hard enough sell.

I’d never put Jaques Cousteau’s designer eyewear up there with Gucci, Ray Ban and Versace—but it may not come to that. At least one AR system is being developed that only needs you to wave your handheld device (phone or tablet) at a specified point on a plan, document or item. If you have the appropriate app, a detailed 3-D image will appear on your screen. There won’t be much need for National Trust guides and front-of-house staff in museums and art galleries if this system takes off...except by those of us who like talking to knowledgeable people, face to face.

Is this for real

The College of Arts’ PowerPoint presentation about Augmented Reality was great. We saw a helicopter appear to rise up from the cover of a brochure. Evesham Abbey was restored to its pre-Reformation glory, ready for you to experience from every angle. You can take a walking tour of the town, raising your phone or tablet at various points along the route. A current living and breathing tour guide had dressed up as a monk to record an AR commentary, so he could be part of the projection. I thought that was sporting of him, considering he and his fellow guides will be out of a job if this system really catches on. The idea behind this particular project was to get the Smartphone generation visiting historic sites. I’m not sure this will work on its own. In my experience, the worlds of education and the workplace are very stressful. Young people use their down time at home or in coffee shops, loafing on their screens. To tempt them out and about you need to offer real, hands-on experiences—the chance to take part in historical reconstructions, or projects.

Back at the PowerPoint presentation, we watched the human architect of a contemporary building being shown the error of his design by an Avatar.

This was at the structure’s planning stage, before a block had been laid. In theory this would save the architect’s client a fortune. In practice, anyone who employed that fictional firm deserved all they got. Years of training, and that so-called professional had designed a very expensive building with a supporting pillar blocking an exterior door. He must have missed that tiny detail on the blueprint. Humans, eh? Never fear, AR came to the rescue, sweeping the door to a corner of the glass-walled new build. That was actually my favourite bit of the presentation. I’ve always fancied designing my own house. Sadly, this great facility would be wasted on me. I’d have much more fun deconstructing a virtual Evesham Abbey stone by stone, rather than putting it back together.

Augmented Reality can be used to create all-singing, all-dancing stationery. This is an easy, fun use of the new technology. We were shown a business card which featured a caricature of its owner. This leaps into life when you wave your tablet or phone at it. The little chap in the demo gave a quick pitch, then invited the viewer to press on a social media contact button in his speech bubble. I was quite taken by this idea, until I thought of being surrounded by dozens of delegates at a conference. If everyone had talking stationery, the racket would be unbearable. There was another potential problem, too. You need to download the relevant business person’s app in order to activate their card, and experience the spiel. If you were going to do that, wouldn’t it be easier (and more enjoyable) to talk to your contact face to face, while they were handing over their card?

The presentation came to an end, and the speaker asked if there were any questions.

I’d been sitting on my hands all evening, trying to stop myself asking something that struck me within seconds of starting to listen. Computing systems are a complete mystery to me, so I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. I waited for someone who knew what they were talking about to ask my question for me. Nobody did. Although several members of the audience raised queries, they didn’t broach the subject I considered vital. It’s arguably the most basic detail in this brave new world of talking business cards, and instant rebuilds.

When a move was made to close the session, I had to speak up.
“Er...I’m just do you make it pay?’
The speaker froze. You could have heard a hologram drop.
I thought perhaps he hadn’t heard my question, so I added; “I you charge for the app?”
In an online society where everybody is used to getting everything for free, that would be a tough call. It turned out there was no charge for the app. That’s a good thing, but that expensive technology, the testing and the updates would all have to be paid for somehow. I pushed on.
‘So where does the money come from?’
If only digging myself a deeper hole had given me somewhere to hide. Everyone—including the college principal—turned and pinned me with A Look. You know the expression Dad’s Army’s Captain Mainwaring adopts, seconds before he calls Pike a stupid boy? Well—that.

The Augmented Reality designer had the perfect answer, though it wasn’t one I liked. AR sells advertising space.

If there’s one thing that really puts me off the internet, it’s the adverts. Media executives have decided static ones have long since lost their pulling power, so it’s all holiday videos and runway strutters. Everything has to jiggle, scroll up and down at the margins of the online text you’re reading, or slide across to gyrate in a corner. It’s the equivalent of being trapped on a long-haul flight next to a hyperactive toddler.

I only hope the words “Eat at Sid’s” or “Sofa Sale! Must End Monday!” scroll past in really tiny type below my immersive Augmented Reality experience of Tottering Towers Through The Ages. Sadly, experience teaches that the developers are more likely to send musical burgers flying about before our very eyes, or kids bouncing on virtual furniture in the Augmented Reality knot garden—because they can, rather than it’s because it’s what we viewers want.

At this stage in its development, I think Augmented Reality is a solution looking for problems to solve. That doesn’t mean to say it won’t catch on. Architects and their clients will love it, and imagine learning anatomy like this! The artist George Stubbs famously dissected dead horses down to the bones, then reconstructed the animals layer by layer in his sketchbooks. Soon, his inheritors will be able to wave their phones at an animal and get nothing worse than graphite on their hands.

Laser technology was initially slow to catch on. Look how common it is in all sorts of situations now. I’m sure Augmented Reality will expand from niche status, but I don’t think I’ll be an early adopter.

What do you think? When you’re sightseeing, would you rather get your information from guides (whether human, or a booklet) or new tech on your phone or tablet?

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