Augmented reality is kind of a hybrid between material reality and virtual reality in that it combines the power of hyperlinks and interconnected media with the geography and architecture of the physical world.
For a long time everyone assumed that virtual reality would be the basis of "cyberspace" and that it's arrival was imminent, however while it has been around from a technical perspective for well over a decade, very few regular folk have adopted it, outside of the gaming world of course.
So augmented reality is appearing as a kind of compromise that brings the benefits and promise of virtual reality to the real world that we all find so comfortable.
As well the rate of technological change is so rapid these days that while this may be the first time you've heard of augmented reality, I anticipate that you'll hear a lot more real soon, and by the end of the year it could be a regular part of the popular culture.
Perhaps the most compelling example currently being touted is a prototype that has been developed at the MIT Media Lab and is currently being featured in a TED talk by Pattie Maes.
It comes in the form of an amulet you were around your neck that is both a high rez camera and a digital projector. As you walk around the camera analyzes what it sees, and where desirable, projects information onto whatever it happens to be analyzing.
So if that's a friend it tells you info about them. If it's a product it tells you information about it. Turn any wall into a laptop, and advertisements can be enhanced or even blocked outright.
The necklace literally augments reality! Reminds me of an Amulet of ESP from Nethack.
In the meantime there are many augmented reality applications that work with the web cam many people have connected to their computer.
BMW for example has an application that promotes the latest version of their Z4 sportster that allows you to control the car on the screen via a piece of paper held in front of your web cam.
These are just the beginning though. The real potential is outside of the office and in the real world.
For example, smart phones like the iphone, nokia, or google phone can do this by combining the camera on the phone, with the gps, and software that will reveal added layers of information such as restaurant reviews, shopping information, culture, sports, politics, or even new types of graffitti.
Artists have already started experimenting with creative applications of augmented reality in which they transform architecture or sky lines by just adding layers that can be viewed via AR applications.
Or think of sticky notes that you could leave on buildings that only your friends could see when looking through an AR application. The potential for scavenger hunts and similar quests is just endless.
What we're delving into here is a larger migration towards becoming cyborgs, where technology becomes so integrated into our lives that we not only take it for granted but alter our environments to add extra layers like augmented reality.
It starts with web cams, moves to cameras, then wearable media, then implants...