Augmented Space: The Moon on Your Desk, and Buzz Aldrin Anywhere

AR is about to go big.

Moon AR desk.png
Fake moon on a real table, courtesy of the planetARy app.

Last summer, Pokémon Go introduced hundreds of millions of Pidgey and Zubat trappers to the wonders (gimmick?) of augmented reality, which lets you mix artificial images with the real world as seen through your smartphone camera.

Things have been mostly quiet on the AR front since then, but more than a year later, the technology is about to explode. The iPhone 8 is due to come out next week, and augmented reality is expected to be one of iOS 11’s most popular new tricks. And it will go far beyond adding funny hats and mustaches to your Snapchat selfies.

Augmented reality has actually been around for some time in one form or another, with space and aviation perenially popular topics. For years you’ve been able to point your phone at a star, and Sky Map or a dozen other apps will identify it for you. Same with satellite and airplane trackers that let you see what’s passing overhead through your viewfinder. All of these are examples of what’s called location-based AR.

Other apps use printed targets or target objects to summon up images, a little like holograms except that they only appear when you’re looking through the smartphone viewfinder. These, too, have been around for a while. NASA’s Spacecraft 3D app lets you display little animated models of Mars rovers or other spacecraft on your desk. One of my favorite AR apps of this type comes from the Lunar and Planetary Institute, whose planetARy displays images of moons and planets—or even the Apollo 11 command module—when you point your phone at their customized targets, which you can print on your own printer. All of this is free.

The targets can be physical objects as well as images printed on paper.  Walmart can’t seem to keep the Merge Cube in stock (I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to buy one). And thanks to a successful Indiegogo compaign, a company called Astroreality is selling very high-fidelity mini-globes of the moon, which double as AR targets for displaying more information, even video. Joanne Dai, the company’s marketing director, says Astroreality plans to create AR-enhanced globes for other solar system objects as well.

The educational value of such models is obvious—students can call up 3D images of planets on their desks whenever they want, even spin them around with the swipe of a finger, as if they were real globes.

As AR becomes more ubiquitous, a lot of it will be used just for messing around, or even messing with your head. Tomás Garcia of Buenos Aires, Argentina, is among the many developers who’ve been playing with Apple’s ARKit in anticipation of the new AR-friendly iPhones. His Falcon rocket landing in a swimming pool is an inspired piece of AR fun:

Falcon 9 landing at the ASDS / ARkit Demo

Expect to see more of these kinds of “blended reality” scenes as both Apple and Google developers (who also are busy, playing with ARCore) flex their imaginations. And expect to see the illusions become more sophisticated, as well as more convincing.

Tsunekazu Ishihara, CEO of the Pokémon Company, told Bloomberg News, “With current AR, even if you say Pikachu is there, no one really thinks that. But that reality is just one step away. For example, you’ll be able to find Pikachu, and it can sense this table and jump on it, and you can see its shadow on the table, and then it faces you and starts talking to you. We will see the birth of this reality that is another step up from the current Pokémon Go.”

While you’re waiting for that day to arrive, what other space-themed AR can you fool around with? Well, you can always use the Holo app to send the tireless Buzz Aldrin on a lobbying mission to Washington:

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