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What is Augmented Reality?

At the intersection of the open data movement and a growing Internet of Things, augmented reality promises to deliver information and enrich daily life more seamlessly than technology ever has before.

Augmented reality is just what it sounds like — reality that is augmented. More specifically, a user's view of the real world is altered by a computer-generated image that is superimposed on or in it.

Unlike virtual reality, which replaces what the user sees with a simulated environment, augmented reality uses a heads-up-display or a traditional screen to place the information and visual elements over the user's view of our world. The two most publicized applications of augmented reality are the popular mobile game Pokemon Go and the experimental device produced by Google called Glass.

Glass is a headset with a single piece of glass about the size of a sugar cube that rests in the upper-right of the user's field of vision. The core functionality of Google Glass includes things like taking photos and video, navigation, messaging, phone calls, social media, and search.

Though not all of the device's functions are augmented reality (making a phone call with Google Glass, for instance, is a different way to make a phone call, but has no relation to the user's environment), navigation with Glass is characteristic of the potential that augmented reality holds. The information presented to the user is updated live and is based on the user's location, which is understood by the device either via GPS or visual feedback.

Third-party applications for devices like Glass further open possibilities. When accurate facial recognition technology becomes available, an encounter with a friend or co-worker while wearing Glass could alert the user to the person's name and provide associated information, like notice of the person's upcoming birthday or a reminder to pay her back the $20 previously borrowed. While on a nature walk, an augmented reality device could tell the user what kind of bird he or she is looking at along with its endangered status. From medicine and archaeology, the military and driving, design, engineering, advertising, art, education, tourism, entertainment to everyday use, augmented reality hardware and software is advancing as quickly as people can find new applications for it. Once augmented reality systems reach scale for cheap mass production, the number of applications will expand exponentially.

Software like Google Tango is a more common type of technology with fewer barriers to adoption, as it allows users to augment their surroundings with digital objects and information via their smartphones and tablets. By holding up the device, users can view and manipulate digital objects superimposed on images of their surroundings, or use the devices as virtual guides to a museum that's configured for use with Tango.

A handful of governments have started or are considering starting a foray into augmented reality by overlaying digital information or signs on their real world parks, statues or bridges, viewable by smartphone. The state of California, the Newport News shipyard in Virginia, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Michigan's Eastover Elementary School are just a few of the early adopters. Many more governments jumped on the coattails of the Pokemon Go phenomenon, a massively popular mobile game that allows players to accomplish specific goals based on their real-world location.

Augmented reality represents a big opportunity in technology, said Ted Smith, chief innovation officer of Louisville, Ky., now that apps like Pokemon Go have demonstrated how easily and simply reality and the digital world can be combined.

“The idea that I can just very simply hold up my phone and get information from the city about different parts of town around me is simpler today than it was three years ago,” Smith said. “…'What's going on' is the new new thing for cities. There's always something going on in cities. It's very difficult to figure out where everybody is and what the interesting things are, and there's any number of failed event calendars for communities that have never worked. So maybe this should be much more of a hack use of activity data, weather data, traffic data. I don't need to go build the whole thing. Maybe I should just be clever about grabbing stuff that I have.”

At the intersection of the open data movement and a growing Internet of Things, augmented reality promises to deliver information and enrich daily life more seamlessly than technology ever has before.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.