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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear