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October 26, 2009

Augmented Reality in “Print 2.0”

It's nice to see a project I have been involved with going live: The October issue of Red Bull's “Red Bulletin” magazine features augmented reality content that supplements the printed articles. But see for yourself:

Two groundbreaking new features made this move of augmented reality into mainstream media possible. Markerless tracking technology, developed by my former colleagues at TU Graz, allows the system to identify and locate pages in the camera image without requiring special layout or patterns on the page. And even more important, implementing the base technologies in Flash (done by Imagination in Vienna) allows end users to explore the content within their browser, requiring only a webcam connected to or built into their computer. If you want to try for yourself, grab a copy of the magazine and go to (or to de. for the german version) to see it in action.

I was involved early in the project as a consultant, implementing a prototype to experiment with various content formats and bringing together the right people to realize the project. It was clear that Red Bull as a customer would require a seamless and direct user experience to suit their brand, and fortunately some of my former colleagues at Vienna University of Technology are now among the top players in the worldwide augmented reality research community and were able to deliver the necessary technology. I am quite happy how this worked out, as it was an important step for me to move away from doing a lot of implementation work by myself to a more conceptual level, bringing together people and using my experience to move the project in the right direction early on.

Although I am happy to see the results, I also see augmented reality, even in this very simple yet compelling form, still suffering from the same problems and obstacles like when I first experimented with it several years ago: Lighting (the real, not the virtual) is incredibly important and difficult to get right, because reflections on the page can make tracking impossible (especially in glossy magazines like Red Bulletin). In low lighting, the noise from the camera makes tracking impossible. Furthermore, the performance of the Flash implementation is a little below my expectations, requiring the application to use a camera resolution of 320x240 (!), further diminishing tracking and image quality. I believe there is a lot of potential for improvement here by optimizing either the implementation or Flash itself. (Hey Adobe, please note this down and check what you can do to optimize. And while you're at it, please add multi-threading capabilities to Actionscript if you want to see killer applications like this with decent performance - in a future of heavily parallelized systems this will be inevitable anyway.)

Talking about the application itself, this is obviously nothing new. Basically, there is still no more compelling augmented reality application in sight than simply placing virtual stuff on real objects - Flash's built in capability to display streamed videos just adds a very nice content type to it. Worldwide, hundreds of researchers are still looking for the “killer app” that will only be possible with augmented reality (I tried for myself for some years). Until a genius comes up with a truly revolutionary idea, we will have to stick with permutations of ARToolkit's cube demo as the mainstream application - and work on providing stable tracking, good performance (possibly on mobile devices) and a seamless user experience as icing on the cake. If done right, this can be great added value for dead-tree publications.

Here is Red Bull's promotion video for the project: