The Business Class

Augmented reality—no longer the stuff of movies

Anmar Frangoul | Special to
David Malan | Getty Images

Picture the scene. You're in a bustling restaurant in Tokyo, staring blankly at an indecipherable menu of Japanese script with no hope of knowing what you're about to order. Now, imagine a pair of glasses that in the blink of an eye would translate the whole menu, allowing you to tell your sashimi from your chicken katsu.

It's the stuff of movies, but thanks to advancements in augmented reality, such a solution is just around the corner. At the end of September Japanese mobile company NTT Docomo demonstrated its menu translating Intelligent Glasses at Ceatec 2013, an IT and electronics exhibition in Japan.

Augmented reality, or AR, allows a wealth of digital information – from graphics, reports and statistics to video and audio – to be superimposed on physical objects, melding the physical world with a computer generated one, blurring the boundaries between real and virtual. And all you need is a smartphone or tablet.

While menu translating glasses are a bit further off – Docomo hopes to have them ready for sale by 2020 – augmented reality apps are already having an impact on our lives. By pointing a phone or tablet at food packaging, newspapers, and even the street, users of apps such as Blippar and Layar can find recipes, breathe life into column inches, and get information about local restaurants, cafes and bars.

There is even a free app from Nokia, called Internship Lens, which lets job hungry students and graduates in the United States hover their mobile over a company's building to find out if any internships are on offer.

"The future of augmented reality has enormous potential, and the present is just hinting, really, at what the possibilities might include," Dr Chris Brauer, founder of the Centre for Creative and Social Technologies (CAST) at Goldsmiths, University of London, told

"With advertising, marketing and branding, there are enormous implications – there will be no need to physically deface the world, and probably, it will ultimately mean the end of billboards."

The numbers look healthy, too. A report from Juniper Research predicts that in 2013 AR apps on mobiles will generate revenues of almost $300 million, and that by 2017 2.5 billion AR apps will be downloaded onto mobiles or tablets every year.

There are still teething problems, however, which perhaps temper this excitement. If an app is unreliable, or a user does not possess a top-end mobile or tablet, their experience may suffer.

Moreover, having to point your tablet or mobile at an objector space to access content may, after a while, become a bit of a chore. "At the moment a lot of interfaces are relatively clunky and the applications aren't smooth and easy enough for widespread mass adoption," said Brauer.

Privacy is another concern. In a recent survey on wearable technology, conducted by CAST and Rackspace, a web hosting company, 51 percent of respondents expressed concerns about privacy, while 20 percent of Britons surveyed wanted to ban Google Glass.

The biggest issue though with augmented reality is one of necessity, a point raised by entrepreneur James Caan in The Business Class. "Is this [Blippar] going to be one of those 'nice to haves', or is this actually going to be a commercially viable business?"

The question of whether we actually need apps that make our chocolate bars talk, or tell us where to eat, is a valid one.

"The internet was on your desktop computer, then it moved to your laptop, and then it moved to mobiles, promising a huge range of possibilities," Brauer said.

"Augmented reality promises further than that. Saying, 'do we need augmented reality?' is like saying 'do we need the internet?' It's an inevitable transition and it's going to be about who innovates and experiments."