Digital sixth sense pokes a nose over the horizon

8 October 2009 by Steve Blum
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He didn’t invent it, but he might be the one who brings it to market. Paul Jacobs, CEO of Qualcomm, talked about a coming “digital sixth sense” at today’s CTIA keynote session. His father, Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs, mentioned that at his age he’d like his mobile device to help him recognize faces and remember names. Paul took the idea to the next level, putting it together with other augmented reality concepts.

It’s still a fuzzy notion. Generally though, augmented reality involves delivering instant information about the real world around you, more or less automatically. It could be a system for recognizing faces, telling you the person’s name and giving you some quick background info regarding, say, the last time you met. Or you could look at the street you’re on through your mobile phone’s camera, and have buildings visually tagged with information about the businesses inside. And the list goes on.

The information flow can go both ways. You could walk into a party, take a quick peep at your phone’s camera, and instantly know who’s there. At the same time you could broadcast your own tag, telling something about yourself to anyone checking you out with a mobile phone.

Augmented reality still has a long way to go before it makes the jump from lab to market. But companies are starting to edge in that direction. The CTIA show featured applications that link GPS data to information about a specific location, and displays the result on a map. Intermap Technologies demonstrated its Accuterra iPhone app that provides tourist maps and guides to national parks and other outdoor attractions. They’re taking a hard look at iPhone 3.1 platform, which was just released to developers and supports early stage augmented reality functionality.

Mobile phone cameras and screens are just the beginning. Utimately, it’ll involve dedicated sensors and wearable display devices (glasses, maybe contact lenses?) tied to cloud based data and processing power. The mobile phone will just be one element in the augmented reality ensemble of the near future.