Augmented Reality Goes Postal

United States Postal Service Eagle Icon I never intended to turn this into an Augmented Reality blog, but there are so many creative ways people are starting to use this burgeoning technology. Many of them are experiments in artistic expression or marketing buzz, but some of them actually serve a practical purpose. In this case, printing out the United States Postal Service eagle icon and placing it in front of your webcam, allows you to see realistic, 3D virtual packages in actual-size. You can try it out for yourself in the Priority Mail Virtual Box Simulator.

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Customers can choose from 4 different sizes (ranging from small to large) and then adjust the opacity of the box that appears using the Box Transparency slider. In the above picture I have chosen the Small Flat-Rate Box, which is supposed to be 8 and 5/8 inches long. It’s appears a little bit smaller than ‘actual size’, which you can tell because it isn’t as wide as the 8 and 1/2 inch paper I’m holding. It should actually be slightly wider than the paper.

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What makes this truly useful, however, is the Persistent Box View which you can activate at the bottom left. Most augmented reality displays disappear when the target icon is covered. With the persistent view, the box will stay floating in mid-air when the eagle icon is removed, allowing a customer to hold up another item in its place. In this case I’m holding up a portable DVD player to see if it will fit into the Medium 1 box, and it appears as though it will quite comfortably.

Here Comes Jted's Head In A Box

Finally, with flashbacks of the movie se7en in my mind, I check to see if my head fits into the Large box. Sure enough, it does.

I don’t know if this is any more convenient than pulling out a tape measure, but it certainly looks cooler. And remember that these are still fledgeling ideas and applications. In a short time, when your mobile device is the augmented lens to view reality through, Priority Mail will have an app that will scan your images with a camera, tell you which box you’re going to need, how much it will cost, and where the nearest outlet is. Heck, it might even beam it directly to your destination.

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Engaged. Kids Love Augmented Reality.

C-3PO and Chewbacca play Dejarik in Star Wars IV: A New Hope
R2-D2 and Chewbacca play Dejarik while C-3PO looks on, in Star Wars IV: A New Hope

One the strongest cinematic memories from my childhood is from Star Wars (surprise surprise). C-3Po R2-D2 and Chewbacca are playing a type of holographic chess on the Millennium Falcon, passing the time as they speed through space. The game pieces move and interact with each other and— even cooler— they fight! I wanted one of these Dejarik sets, and dreamed of a time when holographic games and toys became a reality.

Judging by the last few months on the internet, that time is well on its way. Augmented Reality is set to bring those holographic moments to anyone with a computer and a webcam, or even a mobile phone. Last night I gave my kids a printout of the newest Star Trek poster and told them to hold it up to the computer screen (at Experience the Enterprise). I watched their surprised faces when, on screen, they were suddenly holding a diminutive replica of a three-dimensional spaceship. Both of them loved the experience, and immediately started testing it’s boundaries: how much could they bend the paper, how far away could they stand, how close could they bring the paper into the camera. It was amazing to watch them instinctively push the limits of the technology. My son kept looking at the computer and then back at the paper he was holding, trying to figure out why it was invisible in real life.

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Sebastian, Age 4, Experiences Augmented Reality for the First Time

They would have played with the USS-Enterprise for hours if I had let them, just like a brand new toy. This particular AR could fire torpedoes and phasers, and simulate flying at warp speed. How many other toys have that ability? It’s still a bit clunky and you really tire of holding a piece of paper up to a screen for a long time, but for a technology that is just begining to come out of its shell, it’s a wonderous experience.

I’m looking forward to the LucaArts AR gameboard that let’s me play Dejarik on my coffee table. Are you listening George?

Update: Here are a few more bonus pictures:

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About TXT*

*but were afraid to ask.

A co-worker disappears into the bathroom, yet their Facebook wall magically updates. A friend tells you she can’t make it to your party because she’s not feeling well, yet her Twitter post raves about the new sushi restaurant downtown. It’s getting harder and harder to tell lies, even little white lies, when you are ‘lifecasting’. It’s also getting a lot harder to hide. People are TXTing from their mobile phones from just about every mobile location. They are telling everyone exactly what they are doing. But are they really?

Employing the 10 Ideas in 10 Minutes technique, I came up with ten things to consider (or conversely block from your mind) when you receive a text message (or IM, or Tweet).

  1. Is this person driving a car? “Don’t Text and Drive!” will be the slogan for the next generation.
  2. Is this person crossing the street? If so, they’re about to get hit by the texter from #1.
  3. Is this person operating heavy machinery? I saw a road worker texting with one dirty, gloved hand through a clear plastic bag (to keep his phone clean). With his other hand he was distractedly pushing a giant, wet, screaming radial saw into hard concrete. We’ll see how long he has two hands.
  4. Is this person standing at a urinal, or sitting on a toilet seat? It’s not like the bathroom germs can be transported via satellite, but it’s still a bit too intimate and disturbing. I suppose it’s still more polite than talking on the phone, which I’ve witnessed in a few men’s bathrooms.
  5. Is this person drunk? Look for an increase in miss-spellings, as well as odd confessions , extra X’s and O’s, and <3’s.
  6. Is this person high? Look for sentences that aren’t completed, words replaced by numbers, and strange shortened versions of common words.
  7. Is this person getting lucky? If they are sexting you, that’s okay. But if they are conversing with you digitally while having sex with someone else, well that’s just wrong.
  8. Is this person eating? Don’t text with your mouth full.
  9. Is this person in a completely different emotional state than they are projecting? How tragic to be sending out little :-) when there might be tears streaming down his or her face.
  10. Is this person standing somewhere nearby, watching you? Does that sound creepy? Because that’s what people used to do before mobile phones: stand near each other, look at each other, and talk out loud.