Augmented reality: Where the real and virtual worlds meet

Augmented reality made a big splash in June when Google unveiled Project Glass — a foray into futuristic mobile computing technology. The video-capturing spectacles are designed to “help you live in the moment,” as Google put it, by delivering real-time information and truly ubiquitous Internet right before a user’s very eyes.

Although Project Glass gives us a glimpse into a world in which social media, apps and the Internet seamlessly intersect, the concept of AR is not new in government. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency made inroads into AR years ago. In 2010, NOAA worked with developer Total Immersion and another environmental organization to use AR technology to promote environmental awareness among children. The result was an environmental kiosk that teaches kids about pollution and its impact on wildlife and the environment.

NASA also had education in mind when it created Spacecraft 3D, an AR app that brings some of the agency's robotic spacecraft to life. It uses animation to illustrate how spacecraft can maneuver and manipulate their components, and the idea is to display the spacecraft in any physical environment, said Stephen Kulczycki, deputy director for communications and education at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“Most people are excited about the implications of this,” he said about the app and AR technology in general.

EPA’s Toxics Layar app displays the agency’s Toxics Release Inventory from thousands of U.S. facilities, by toxic chemical, weight and source. It allows iPhone users to see which and how many toxic chemicals were released in their area in the previous year.

Those apps illustrate the endless possibilities for agency use of AR, said Nancy Grady, technical fellow in analytics at SAIC. Geographic information systems can pinpoint a specific location on a map, and AR can enhance situational awareness by adding details such as orientation and elevation, Grady said.

AR can also help workers in the field — for example, by pinpointing the locations of previous work orders or citations for inspectors or by helping emergency response personnel by visually representing the resources that existed in a region before a disaster struck, Grady said.

In the defense arena, AR has been used to train warfighters, provide them with timely information during battles, and help them maintain and repair equipment while deployed, said Rakesh Kumar and Supun Samarasekera, senior technical director and senior technical manager, respectively, at SRI International’s Vision and Robotics Laboratory.

“Today, the only other cost-effective alternative is fully virtual training,” they said in an e-mail message. “However, virtual training lacks the physicality of live, real-world environments. AR allows mixing the virtual with the real for more effective training.”

Rethinking data delivery

AR is not without its challenges, however. Chief among them is the user interface design. Just as mobile interfaces changed from small Web pages to easy-to-use applications optimized for screen size and gesture inputs, AR applications need to be designed for that purpose from the ground up, Grady said. Agencies will also have to consider how to bridge the gap between mobile computing power and backend server computing power, she added.

Technical issues aside, “the business challenge is to rethink the delivery of data and services and develop an enhanced business strategy that not only covers mobile services delivery but determines when the presentation should incorporate AR,” Grady said. “This challenge includes the imagination to fold this new capability in for the appropriate applications.”

As with any new technology, don’t expect AR to gain ground immediately. Federal agencies should begin by finding internal uses for it. For example, AR can be incorporated into tools that train employees and guide them in executing complex tasks, Kumar and Samarasekera said.

The key is to start small before committing to a large undertaking. But the pace of AR adoption in government won’t match the private sector’s implementation.

“AR will lag behind the incorporation of mobile devices into enterprise applications in federal agencies,” Grady said. “It will enter first as a few small pilot projects to help determine the business use case for adding in the technology.”

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