I just got back from the Adobe Max conference in Los Angeles and I am very excited. There was a lot to be impressed about and one of the technologies getting a lot of attention was augmented reality (AR).

AR is the technique of overlaying graphics on an image of the real world such that the graphics enhance and recontextualize the scene. AR has been used for years in the military in heads-up displays in fighter aircraft where the pilot's view is enhanced with markers highlighting other aircraft (note that data such as airspeed that is also shown on heads-up displays is not, strictly speaking, augmented reality as it is not an integrated part of the visualize context of the scene).

The connection between the Adobe conference and AR is that developers favour the use of Flash content to provide the visual overlay for an AR scene. The whole Flash model combined with the impressive 3D features now available in a number of Adobe products.

At the conference, a great presentation by Jesse Freeman and James Alliban showcased some impressive examples that explored both the artistic and business potential of augmented reality.


Alliban, who works for London digital agency Skive, which does some amazing work, showed a number of his AR projects that were visually stunning as well as one project that, should you have doubts about the commercial potential of AR, should change your mind: The USPS Virtual Box Simulator.

Developed by AKQA, the Virtual Box Simulator is a Web application that lets you check whether something you want to ship will fit in one of the USPS flat rate shipping boxes as well as order real, physical boxes.

To use the Virtual Box Simulator you need a Web cam pointing at a table. You then print out a 'target' -- a black and white image that the AR application uses to determine the scene geometry.

When you hold this target so the camera can see it, the target is displayed on your computer screen is overlaid with a semi-transparent USPS box -- move and rotate the target and the virtual box also moves simultaneously. If you can lay the target (and therefore the virtual box) on the table and place the thing to be shipped on the target it is very easy to whether the thing actually fits the box.

You can change box sizes and alter the transparency of the virtual box and, when satisfied, use the same Web application to order your shipping supplies.

While you might say that if you had the actual boxes to hand you could easily test the real fit and therefore the Virtual Box Simulator is more for show that misses the point. The point is that this is actually useful and useable and applies to the real world, it isn't just an art project or a test of the technology.

Augmented Reality looks like it is about to take off, big time. Not only are people talking about the concept and producing useful examples, but the marketplace is making the building process easier with libraries that combine Flash with AP such as FLARToolKit and the library wrapper FLARManager.

I expect to see a lot more augmented reality not only at next year's Adobe Max conference but in the real world as well.