Aurasma vs. Blippar

I’ve written about Augmented Reality extensively in the past, but since the days of immersing myself in the purely theoretical potential for the medium, a few key players have rooted themselves in a very commercial reality that is now powering the fledgling industry.

And while B2B-focused vendors such as ViewAR remain behind the scenes, the likes of Aurasma and Blippar have soared in notoriety thanks to some quite excellent packaging and an impressive sales proposition. They are the standard bearers, at least in the eyes of the public.

I like Aurasma. But I also like Blippar. So which is better? Well, let’s find out… Here are some provocations I’ve been toying around with. See if it helps you decide, and let me know which side you fall on in the comments.

[twocol_one][dropcap]A[/dropcap]urasma has more technological power behind it. They have (supposedly) incorporated academic research into their proprietary tech and have a heritage in pattern recognition systems – remember their core business though: integrating with business critical processes and then slowly ramping up prices. They do this across all other Autonomy products! Also consider they are an HP property, whose business is hardware, not software. I believe Aurasma are only using this period of their lifespan to learn what does and doesn’t work, get better at it, gain status, equip users to enjoy AR, and then develop a mobile chipset (literally, hardware optimised for AR) that can be embedded in mobile devices, making HP buckets of royalties. They are chasing install base, but not because they want advertising bucks: they want to whitelabel their tech (i.e. Tesco, Heat & GQ) and then disappear into the background.[/twocol_one]

[twocol_one_last][dropcap]B[/dropcap]lippar have a proprietary AR engine, but are listed as using Qualcomm’s Vuforia engine – which is free to use. They seem focused on innovations in the augmented layer. Reading their interviews, they speak of AR not as a tech, platform or medium, but as a kind of magic campaign juice: stuff that reveals they are extremely focused on delivering a good consumer experience paid for by advertisers, with them as connective tissue. To this end, they too are chasing install base, but ultimately they have a different goal in mind. Being Qualcomm-backed, their future is in flexing their creative muscles and helping make AR a mass market medium through normalising behaviour. Big rivals: Aurasma in the short term, but I imagine that one day, Aurasma will revert back to being a tech platform, and companies like Blippar will provide the surface experience: where good content, not tech, will be what sells.[/twocol_one_last]

So what do you reckon – A or B?

Astro Boy is Blasting Onscreen

Astro Boy will be landing on our screens in October this year, it’s been confirmed.

Astroboy Blasts Off

For those who don’t know, ‘Astro Boy’ is an anime sci-fi series set in a dystopian future where humans and androids coexist. It’s main character is a powerful robot called Astro Boy (Astro for short), who was created by a great scientist called Doctor Tenma following the death of his son Tobio.

Despite looking identical to Tobio, Tenma soon realized that the little android could not fill the void of his lost son, especially given that Astro could not grow older or easily express human feelings. Indeed, in one set of comic panels, Astro is shown preferring the mechanical shapes of cubes over the organic shapes of flowers. I’m a bit like that sometimes… 🙂

Astro is gifted with awesome robot powers and skills, as well as the ability to experience human emotions. Astro has fought crime, evil, and injustice across five decades of great comic and television series. Most of his enemies are robot-hating humans, robots gone berserk, or alien invaders. Almost every story includes a battle involving Astro and other robots. Cool huh?

In advance of Astro Boy’s Autumn 2009 cinematic release, let’s take a trip through the many ages of Astro Boy…


Astro Boy was the first Anime to be exported to the West.
Check out this intro to his first TV series, dubbed from Japanese:


Here’s the Astro that most of us will recognise.
He’s been in this colour form for the longest (excepting his past in comics):

Modern Day

Finally, the trailer for his upcoming movie, which I’m pretty excited about.
I’m predicting a new wave of popularity and cool merchandise from this:

Astro is a cultural icon in my eyes, and for me is the strongest symbol of a Japanese media form being highly attractive to a Western eye, together with Hello Kitty. Who’s with me? Would love to hear some thoughts.

The Subscription Options Plugin

My aim is to make my views on Digital Media, Branding and Emergent Technologies as accessible as possible not only to industry types, but to the blog-scouring early-adopting masses. My ongoing series on Augmented Reality has been relatively successful in boosting both the visitation and the subscribership of this blog.

Aside from the content I’ve written this month (May 2009 has been my most prolific since this blog’s inception) I have also started an SEO and social media strategy to extend the reach of the content I write here. I’ll share details later…

Anyway, the key element I want to tell you about in this post is my third strategy to make Digital Cortex portable to readers. I’ve started to provide readers with a range of subscription options, since the most common way for readers to subscribe to any blog and its content are through RSS, Email or Twitter. That’s when I came up with my brand new WordPress plugin.

I realised that my subscription solution might be useful to others also looking to grow their subscribership, so I created this:

The Subscription Options Plugin

This is how your subscriptions could look if you use my plugin.

I’ve turned my HTML code into a PHP-based plugin for all WordPress users that has the exact effect I aimed to achieve – to look good on a page, and for blog readers to easily grasp what each icon stood for.

Once installed it can be placed in any widget-ready area, allowing users to link to their various subscription options with ease.


What is AR and What is it Capable Of?

Presently, most AR research is concerned with live video imagery and it’s processing, which allows the addition of live-rendered 3D digital images. This new augmented reality is viewable through a suitably equipped device, which incorporates a camera, a screen and a CPU capable of running specially developed software. This software is written by specialist software programmers, with knowledge of optics, 3D-image rendering, screen design and human interfaces. The work is time consuming and difficult, but since there is little competition in this field, the rare breakthroughs that do occur are as a result of capital investment: something not willingly given to developers of such a nascent technology.

What is exciting about AR research is that once the work is done, its potential is immediately seen, since in essence it is a very simple concept. All that is required from the user is their AR device and a real world target. The target is an object in the real world environment that the software is trained to identify. Typically, these are specially designed black and white cards known as markers:

An AR marker, this one relates to a 3D model of Doctor Who's Tardis in Gameware's HARVEE kit
An AR marker, this one relates to a 3D model of Doctor Who's Tardis in Gameware's HARVEE kit

These assist the recognition software in judging viewing altitude, distance and angle. Upon identification of a marker, the software will project or superimpose a virtual object or graphical overlay above the target, which becomes viewable on the screen of the AR device. As the device moves, the digital object orients in relation to the target in real-time:

Augmented Reality in action, multiple markers in use on the HARVEE system on a Nokia N73

The goal of some AR research is to free devices from markers, to teach AR devices to make judgements about spatial movements without fixed reference points. This is the cutting edge of AR research: markerless tracking. Most contemporary research, however, uses either marker-based or GPS information to process an environment.

Marker-based tracking is suited to local AR on a small scale, such as the Invisible Train Project (Wagner et al., 2005) in which players collaboratively keep virtual trains from colliding on a real world toy train track, making changes using their touch-screen handheld computers:

The Invisible Train Project (Wagner et al., 2005)

GPS tracking is best applied to large scale AR projects, such as ARQuake (Thomas et al, 2000), which exploits a scale virtual model of the University of Adelaide and a modified Quake engine to place on-campus players into a ‘first-person-shooter’. This application employs use of a headset, wearable computer, and a digital compass, which offer the effect that enemies appear to walk the corridors and ‘hide’ around corners. Players shoot with a motion-sensing arcade gun, but the overall effect is quite crude:

ARQuake (Thomas et al, 2000)

More data input would make the game run smoother and would provide a more immersive player experience. The best applications of AR will exploit multiple data inputs, so that large-scale applications might have the precision of marker-based applications whilst remaining location-aware.

Readers of this blog will be aware that AR’s flexibility as a platform lends applicability to a huge range of fields:

  • Current academic work uses AR to treat neurological conditions: AR-enabled projections have successfully cured cockroach phobia in some patients (Botella et al., 2005);
  • There are a wide range of civic and architectural uses: Roberts et al. (2002) have developed AR software that enables engineers to observe the locations of underground pipes and wires in situ, without the need schematics
  • AR offers a potentially rich resource to the tourism industry: the Virtuoso project (Wagner et al., 2005) is a handheld computer program that guides visitors around an AR enabled gallery, providing additional aural and visual information suited to each artefact;

The first commercial work in the AR space was far more playful, however: AR development in media presentations for television has led to such primetime projects as Time Commanders (Lion TV for BBC2, 2003-2005) in which contestants oversee an AR-enabled battlefield, and strategise to defeat the opposing army, and FightBox (Bomb Productions for BBC2, 2003) in which players build avatars to compete in an AR ‘beat-em-up’ that is filmed in front of a live audience; T-Immersion (2003- ) produce interactive visual installations for theme parks and trade expositions; other work is much more simple, in one case the BBC commissioned an AR remote-control virtual Dalek meant for mobile phones, due for free download from BBC Online:

A Dalek, screenshot taken from HARVEE's development platform (work in progress)
A Dalek, screenshot taken from HARVEE's development platform (work in progress)

The next entry in this series is a case study in AR development. If you haven’t already done so, please follow me on Twitter or grab an RSS feed to be alerted when my series continues.

Microsoft’s Vision for the Future

Microsoft have released a new video suggesting they seek to reposition themselves over the next decade. I think they are on to something:

Their vision for the future is evidently very ambitious, but I believe that if anyone can pull this off, it’s them.

Microsoft’s approach has always been to create user experiences that are improved through exclusive use of Microsoft products. Sure, it’s got them in a  lot of trouble in the past, but it’s their corporate power and knowledge of how technologies (especially theirs) can work together that will best service the user through Ubiquitous Computing and Augmented Reality.

What’s especially interesting to me is that they really seem to have thought past their next release, Surface. It’s great to see something of their overall strategy. Something Apple, Google & Yahoo! are far less forthcoming with.

We are soon to have a Surface installed in the lobby at work. Really looking forward to it, but I’m concerned it’ll be too prescriptive in what it can be  used for. If Surface and any of the featured technologies in the above video suffer the marketing / usability failures of Vista it’ll be years more until these tools become a reality, at the hands of their competitors.

Will feedback on Surface once I’ve had a hands-on.