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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).