Augmented Reality

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Yes, I am a fan of Wallace and Gromit. Is that augmented reality? Let’s see. 

Augmented reality is a live, direct or indirect, view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. It is related to a more general concept called mediated reality, in which a view of reality is modified by a computer. (

The first encounter I had with actual augmented reality was back when I was in the satellite industry. The geostationary satellite arc is on a plane which passes through the equator, at 22,300 miles above the surface of the earth. One of the main issues for an earth station installation is whether the earth station has an unobstructed view of the particular satellite you are trying to communicate with. This is accomplished with an inclinometer, a compass and some trial and error.

Satellite arc added to the iPad or iPhone scene.

Satellite arc added to the iPad or iPhone scene.

Sometimes the location of the earth station has to be moved to avoid the blockage. Recently, someone has developed an iPad App which superimposes the satellite arc onto the image from the camera. (This is the augmented reality part.) Then all you have to do is point the iPad toward the southern sky and, voila, if you can “see” the satellite, so can the earth station. Pretty cool.

Today I was in a meeting about advanced retail technology. During the meeting, I saw a demonstration of augmented reality put on by a division of RR Donnelly. The purpose was to expand the pages of a printed catalog into a full cyber experience just by aiming your computer tablet at it. The app recognizes the picture and then adds certain web enabled buttons and videos. You had to be there. Imagine lifting a sofa off the catalog and placing it in your room and then changing the color and then moving it to a different location in the room. Imagine viewing a new swing set in 3D and then placing it into the image of your backyard. Get the picture?

During the meeting one of the speakers was emoting as to how augmented reality could be used in a retail establishment to bring the cyber experience to the brick and mortar store.  In his exuberance he said that you would be able to find out all kinds of things about each product and even add a little romance to the experience.  “… as you look at the sweater, you will be able to see the little sheep which supplied the cotton on a hillside in their natural habitat!”  Some wiseguy in the audience then interjected, “Getting cotton from sheep is the ultimate in Augmented Reality!”  The laughter began after a pause, and then it grew, and someone was heard to say “Oh, I just got it.”

The picture of the sheep above is the only case I know of where sheep were actually covered in cotton.


About the Author:

While I was at Stanford, I got to know Dr. William Schockley, the inventor of the transistor. While at Bell Labs I produced the first computer generated animation, I worked on the first packet switch and the first picture-phone. I worked with the inventors of Unix and C. I produced multiple compilers, operating systems and microcode. I worked with the Snobal language - the precursor to Perl and Ramis the precursor to SQL. The building I worked in was home for 5000 of the smartest people in the industry. We had Phd's cutting the grass. (just kidding). I never had it so good again. Today that building is empty and for sale. After the Bell System, I spent 25 years in the satellite industry. I led development teams in the VSAT industry. I started and grew early stage companies in this industry. Recently I have been involved in cloud computing startups focused on infrastructure and virtual desktops.
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