Sight unseen

Forget virtual reality. Augmented reality, which overlays images on spaces or adds information to images, is more likely to change how humans and computers interact.

Maturing technologies are enabling an enhanced vision of reality, where information follows the eye. Forget virtual reality - augmented reality is more likely to change how humans and computers interact. Unlike virtual reality, augmented reality does not create a simulated reality on a computer screen. Instead, it overlays images on spaces or adds information to images.

Most people have experienced augmented reality - the giant logos of sponsors that appear on the cricket or rugby pitch when viewing a television broadcast, for example.

But having long been focused mostly on solving discrete problems, research and development into augmented reality is about to change as various technologies come together to affect daily life.

Wearable computers, advanced wireless networks and sensors, and ubiquitous computing (where everything is computerised and connected) are set to change reality as we know it. Everything in the "real world web" will have extra visual information by just looking at it. The military has used augmented reality for decades. The heads-up display in fighter jet aircraft is a form of augmented reality and is used extensively in aerial combat.

Projected images in front of the pilot give an enhanced view of an enemy, providing vital information such as target range, airspeed and altitude.

HUDs are also integrated with global positioning systems to provide navigation information in vehicles. BMW,Citro├źn andNissan are already selling vehicles that have HUD information projected on the underside of car windscreens.

The term "augmented reality", although its technology has been under development for many years, was first coined in 1990 by Professor Thomas Caudell while assistingBoeing with the development of technology to help workers assemble aircraft.

Most development has been focused on assisting in complex manufacturing. Wearing special glasses linked to computers, additional information about objects can be presented, instructions can be given to operators and tasks can be recorded as completed.

In medicine, augmented reality systems that include x-ray information have been developed to help surgeons navigate around vital organs or conduct complicated procedures.

Australian researchers are at the forefront of developing augmented reality systems. The University of South Australia's Bruce Thomas and Wayne Piekarski from the School of Computer and Information Science are recognised as leaders in the field.

Although early days for augmented reality, Piekarski's Tinmith project gives us a window into what to expect in coming years. The prototype system demonstrates virtual landscaping, where the users can manipulate virtual trees, tables, light posts and other outdoor items to see what a garden might look like before picking up a real shovel or purchasing real items.

With the rapid development of visual display technology, augmented reality can be applicable to any aspect of life.

For instance, researchers have already developed "virtual retinal display" technology that transmits images directly onto the eye, thus removing the need for bulky headsets.

Researchers say that such technology will become as common as mobile phones - and ultimately could replace them altogether.

What are the real-world applications? The supermarket of the future is a good example. Items no longer need price-tags. By fixing eyes upon an item, shoppers could bring up prices and relevant additional information. Taking this further, the system could provide directions to favourite items or advise on popular items among social networks. A wine to go with a meal could be recommended automatically along with alternatives and specials.

The search for lost keys might be as simple as asking a computer to find them and provide visual guidance. Remote areas could benefit from virtual street signs that pop up when driving by.

Or walking past a house for sale, a virtual assistant might appear on the display, asking if an inspectionis required.

Augmented reality is revolutionising computer gaming but its influence will also change the nature of various media.

Computer-generated imagery can interact with live entertainers, for instance, allowing the audience to dramatically change how entertainment is both consumed and produced.

Your next business meeting could be held at Trevi fountain in Rome - or on top of Mount Everest.

Fairfax Business Media