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

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Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.

 

There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.

 

Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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