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Augmented Reality: Three Applications That Change How We See Things

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Augmented reality is seen by many as the new frontier of environmental interaction. Last year, 302 million smartphones were shipped worldwide, estimated to hit the one billion mark by 2016. Add to that the growing popularity of tablets, and that's a serious amount of computing power being lugged around and referred to while people are out and about.

Enter augmented reality. The term still sounds futuristic, but the applications are already sitting in our pockets. Yelp's Monocle feature on the iPhone and Android app hit the scene as the first augmented reality iPhone app, using the phone's camera and GPS to show real-time search results around you. Since then, "Best of" augmented reality app lists have popped up on sites from TechSplurge to HackEducation to BusinessInsider, and I highly recommend checking them out.

But there are three particular uses of augmented reality that struck me as more substance, and social change, than gaming.

1. The GE SmartGrid

GE's promotion of their SmartGrid concept was one of the first big augmented reality promotions to hit the scene in 2009. It used computers' front-facing cameras to let users interact with a little animation of their new environmentally-friendly energy projects. Blow on the microphone, and the little windmills would move.

The innovative marketing move drove awareness of an otherwise technical concept and got serious social media traction.

2. The Korean Unification Project

The Korean Unification Project is a free Layar-based app available to all with a smartphone, and conveys a vision of a united Korea via augmented reality. From its website:

The project tries to heal the scars left by years of conflict in the Korean peninsula by removing the Korean Demilitarized Zone [DMZ] and returning it to its natural state before Korea was divided. The public may view Korea as a unified country as it once was. The Korean Unification Project removes weapons, checkpoints, fortifications, barriers, walls, and all reminders of the ongoing conflict from the Korean landscape.

The project subscribes to the philosophy that change can happen if you can visualize it, and in this case, quite literally so. It also brings that powerful vision to the public with its free and accessible format.

3. Augmented Reality for Medicine

Medicine is one realm where augmented reality visualization has taken off. Augmented reality is turning anatomy and medical education from flat to interactive, able to be manipulated and seen in spacial context.

Above, German team Mirracle use Microsoft Kinect to put everything from anatomy models to x-rays and both vertical and horizontal cross-slices into the context of a live human body. The second video shows how augmented reality can be used as a tool for patients, as well, showing in context where surgery or medication will affect. The ability of augmented reality to display difficult concepts can change education, surgery and more.

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