The most exciting British innovation since cat's eyes?

British software champion may have cracked augmented reality.

Cat's eyes were a beautifully simple invention by Englishman Percy Shaw, and are thought to have saved countless lives worldwide. While it may not be responsible for saving many lives, a British firm has nailed a technology that might change the way we see the world.

There are not many British software champions, which is all the more reason to cheer the news that Autonomy - founded in Cambridge in 1996 and listed on the London Stock Exchange - appears to have cracked what so many competitors have been chasing: augmented reality that actually works.

The firm recently took the wraps off a new augmented reality technology called Aurasma. With the most obvious-use cases perhaps being in the advertising space, there's potential for this kind of technology to be used by industries such as film, gaming, tourism, the arts and more. There are even implications for emergency situations: pointing your phone at a certain image on an aeroplane could help direct you to the nearest emergency exit. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon.

If you've not seen augmented reality in action before, the easiest way to explain it is to watch Autonomy's short demo below. But essentially, it enables you to point your smartphone or tablet computer at an image - a billboard, or the side of a bus - and for that image to "come to life", with the technology adding further information, an animation or even some sort of game on top of the image placeholder.

 

A number of firms have shown demos of this kind of technology, but the demos often only work for just a handful of images that the smartphone is pointed at. Autonomy's relatively late but impressive entry to the augmented reality space has been made possible by the fact that it had a kind of content management platform called its Intelligent Data Operating Layer (IDOL), which it has been able to use to populate a database of around half-a-million images that Aurasma can then recognise in the real world.

When I caught up with Autonomy's founder and CEO Mike Lynch recently I asked what he believes some of the use cases for Aurasma will be." You have film studios taking characters from their upcoming films, putting them around the major cities so you can walk round New York and meet the characters in the films," he said. "We've got games companies where you make the games location based so you are physically going round places and doing things as part of the game. Museums, where the exhibits actually come alive and tell you about themselves. We've got one around missing children. Travel guides, where you can walk around Rome and see ancient Rome was it was. And obviously advertisers doing a lot of stuff."

He also said that the firm expects individuals as well as companies to come up with new ways of applying augmented reality. "It's amazing what they come up with, completely unexpected things which appeal to their subculture," said Lynch.

The first real-world examples of the applications of Aurasma are expected any day now. In the mean time you can hear the full podcast of my interview with Mike Lynch here.

Jason Stamper is New Statesman technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review (CBR).

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.