In the not-too-distant future, your smartphone is going to save you from roadside ruin.
You’ll be 15 miles from civilization, on the final stretch of a too-long drive to a small town when the steering wheel will shake violently in your grip and smoke will start rising from under the hood of your car.
Pulling off the scenic but deserted highway, you’ll stand defeated beside your wheezing car and make a video call for help on your smartphone. The operator will have a quick, sympathetic face-to-face chat with you, and then pass you over to a mechanic who’ll assess the damage from dozens of miles away.
You’ll tell your story using the front camera on your phone, and then switch to the rear camera and scan along the length, width, and undercarriage of your car. Smart devices all over the vehicle will relay diagnostic information back to the mechanic, with augmented reality graphics popping up so you can both see temperature, pressure, and circuit measurements in real time.
The mechanic will spot the problem, and then draw instructions on your phone with his finger so you can make a quick temporary fix and get yourself into town for permanent repairs. This is a “not-too-distant” future scenario because you can get an introduction to augmented reality video conferencing today by using the new app Vuforia Project Chalk.
Vuforia’s Project Chalk
Chances are you haven’t heard the name Vuforia before, but if you’ve dabbled in augmented or mixed reality tech on your smartphone, with Pokemon GO or animated video calling masks, then you’ve probably used their tech. The company has been working in the background for years, supplying the augmented reality software used by 175,000 developers and deployed in more than 20,000 apps.
Now the company is producing an app of its own, called Chalk. It’s an attempt to make the magic of augmented reality more practical. It uses the most basic function of AR, which is the ability to superimpose computer-generated images over a live view of the real world seen through your desktop, TV, or smartphone. When you place a mask on someone or draw on their face during a video call using an app like Tango or Facebook Messenger, your using AR.
Chalk is just a grown-up, serious application of that idea. As in the roadside assist example above, you point your phone at a problem, and a person on the other end of the video call draws instructions on how to fix it. If Grandma can’t figure out the TV remote, for example, you can use Chalk to draw lots of arrows and circles on it in real time and show her how.
If you get the feeling that this is a rather rudimentary use of augmented reality, you’re right. Like I said, Chalk is just an introduction to AR, and there are a lot of other exciting uses that we’re just starting to discover and make possible.
Augmented Reality Video Calling
Chalk does have a couple of nice tricks. It takes your finger painting-level drawings of instructional cues and turns them into polished, easy-to-understand graphics. More impressively, those graphics are pinned to real-world objects even if the camera’s gaze shifts. So, Grandma could watch you draw on her remote, then turn the camera back to herself for a quick face-to-face chat, and the scribbles will still be there when she looks back at the controller.
But these are still just arrows and circles. Augmented reality can project much more active and detailed images onto the real world. Another app by Vuforia can make monsters come alive and fight on your kitchen table, for example.
It can make a whale appear out of a gymnasium floor.
It can set a dancing robot loose in your living room.
Those impressive feats make a 3D circle look tame. Perhaps soon Vuforia will upgrade the digital arrows with a little animal or minion who can do the pointing and explaining. The user would still just drag their finger across the screen to illuminate the desired button on the TV remote, but instead of a circle appearing, a little troll could walk over and stamp its foot on the right location.
That’s just window dressing, though. To make AR as useful as a magical mechanic, you must combine it with smart devices and the Internet of Things.
The Magic of Augmented Reality
Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, believes augmented reality will have the same disruptive influence on our lives as the smartphone–and his company is actively filing patents to perfect it. That belief stems from the tech’s ability to fuse the real and the digital, to expand our daily reality by adding information and interactivity.
Vuforia’s own AR software, for example, can turn a simple plaque into a 3D thermostat. Information from the AC unit is sent via the internet to your phone, and then the AR interface turns the controls from a flat push-button app to a floating 3D design.
If you extend the reach of that tech out through a video call using something like Chalk, you could simplify Grandma’s TV remote problem down to a one-touch solution. She calls you with her problem, you access the AR app and push the button for her.
Now, if that solution could be applied to more complex activities, you could create the augmented reality video call mechanic from earlier. Sensors within the broken-down car would relay information to your phone and through video calling to the absent mechanic. That data is not only displayed using AR, but also made interactive so that the mechanic could solve your problem for you–remotely.
That’s how you go from the current Chalk app that lets you demonstrate a solution to a future app that will let you actively solve the problem. That’s how you move from an introduction to AR to a technology that has the power to make a smartphone-sized change to our daily lives.