Has A.R. Finally Become a Reality?

Augmented Reality is the overlapping of digital information and physical environment. Sci-Fi has often portrayed A.R. as interactive floating transparent computer screens projected into the air, or perhaps the most absolute example: standing inside an entirely computer generated world.A.R. in the here and now however, has never taken off. Remember the Nintendo Power Glove, Virtual Boy, as well as numerous failed PC peripherals and software that attempted to provide you with a more physical interface to your computer?

The 2D human interface we currently use to operate our computers is sufficiently efficient. The past attempts at trying to sell a 3D interface to the PC failed because they never tried changing the mouse – an inherently 2D device. Walking down a hallway to find a file is not as fast as pointing and clicking on a file browser.

If the designers of these failed products were given the task of inventing a successor for the train, before cars existed; they would decide to take the train off the tracks so that you could go in any direction you wanted, but would not change a single aspect of the train itself. It would still be steam powered, and have the turning circle of a small planet.

In the attempts to create a new system to interact with PCs, these products failed to change the PC itself. Those who tried to replace the mouse failed because they couldn’t change the software: MS Windows, MS-Office etc. are designed entirely around mouse input.

Disruptive innovations can only succeed once all over options have been expended. A third party peripheral manufacturer made a tilt sensitive Playstation controller (but with Dual Shock) in 1996. So why now is SONY saying that the SIXAXIS is such an important aspect of the PS3? The technology was available over 10 years ago.

In the previous (but still mostly current) generation of consoles (XBox1/GameCube/PS2), all three major console manufacturers did to some extent fail to live up to ‘next gen’ hype because in the end all they had to sell was better graphics. There was no significant switch in paradigm, unlike the Playstation 1, Saturn and N64, which all stepped from 2D games into 3D gaming. It is only now that every option has been expended that innovation can come through. To repeat the same mistake of offering only ‘better graphics’ is to offer nothing new.

The Nintendo Wii represents the first successful ‘3D’ interface with a computer. It is not simply a matter of X, Y & Z.; The Wii also understands acceleration, force, tilt and roll. What this gives us, is a wide and natural range of gestures for input, something the mouse is unable to express.

The PC has not gone under any major transition, retaining the same mouse interface since XEORX Parc in the 70s. However, we have sat and dreamt about A.R. for years, and now that it’s in our laps, we have been so wrapped up in the dreams that we’ve not noticed what the arrival of this technology means for the much wider computer industry.

In order for computers to evolve to the next generation, they will need to dispatch of the mouse. Pen based and voice input can provide simpler, quicker access, usable by a wider range of people. Both of these interfaces have failed to catch on properly so far because they have still been tacked-onto a mouse-designed system. The Nintendo Wii did not have to tack Wii controls on top of traditional controls:- Wireless controllers have existed for ages. Nintendo started from scratch with a fresh new interface designed only for the Wiimote. PCs will not evolve until they can do the same. Tablets don’t need ‘XP Tablet Edition’; they need ‘Tablet OS’ before they will ever take off.

The Apple iPhone also represents a disruptive innovation in the market, bringing A.R. to user. You can interact with your data by touching it; it has made every handset since the invention of the mobile phone suddenly look positively stone-age.

As we’ve seen with the Wii and the iPhone, new operating systems need to be developed to make A.R. a reality. The PC industry will not move on if companies are not prepared to ditch the mouse fully. Within 10 years time, the 2D desktop will look as stone-age as using punch-cards. Companies who only make half-baked attempts at ditching the mouse will be eventually ditched by consumers.

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