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.


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.


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.

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:

In Your Space— How Augmented Reality Will Invade Your Personal Content

The following is a fictional scenario, but the technology already exists to make it real.

You go to a concert. You’re given a free poster. Small print on the poster suggests you place it on a wall facing a webcam for added effect. You mount the poster and record a short video of you reviewing the concert. What you don’t know is that it contains an augmented reality marker – a simple fiducial that can be used as a point of reference for computer software to insert or embed digital imagery that wasn’t there before. This marker might look like an icon, a logo, or a simple QR code. In this example, it is the black Warner Brothers logo on a white square background.


The software reading the marker is built into popular media upload sites like flickr and YouTube. It works on both photographs and video. When a marker is recognized, a simple calculation is made based on its size and angle, and a limited ad field is created. In this case, the ad field is the size of the poster. Since the poster is mostly black, it is easier for the software to effectively mask the area and appear ‘behind’ other objects.


When your video is displayed, contextual ads are embedded seamlessly into the background. They change depending on who is watching the video, and at what time. Placing these ads in situ is far more effective than overlays because the content appears naturally in the environment. And if the ad is related to the original content (i.e.the Green Day poster) and the audience (people who want to watch you review the Green Day concert), than it should theoretically be more powerful. In this example your Green Day poster becomes an announcement that the band is making a local appearance next week: local to the person viewing the video.


Rolling over the limited ad field turns off the mask, and brings the announcement into the foreground where all of it can be read. Clicking on it opens a new window with further information.


As time goes on, the old poster from the last album is digitally updated when a newer album is released. Your paper poster has essentially become it’s own electronic billboard, thanks to the magic of augmented reality.


But who controls this new display area? Is it owned by you, the content creator? Is it owned by the online service providers, the Googles and the Yahoos? Or is it owned by the traditional companies who distributed the physical originals? Ultimately it will be all three— in a complicated revenue sharing agreement. Since Reprise Records distributes Green Day, and is owned by Warner Music Group, Warner Brothers might want to show some of their other media properties. If a big movie release is pending, WB could choose to convert all their augmented reality property to movie posters. Flickr’s serving software and augmented reality presentation layer would need to be updated, and you would need to click a checkbox allowing WB to present action movies. Now, instead of an old concert poster, there’s a promotion for the new Sherlock Holmes movie. You would be paid by the view, and even more by the click. Or something like that.


And what about three-dimensional objects? In both pictures and videos, the augmented reality marker can calculate perspective, and therefore embedded 3D objects into a scene. But they need a bit more space. Ideally, the software would look for a smooth, uniform colour and expand the mask beyond the borders of the original poster. In this case the expanded ad field takes over the entire wall. Now there’s a lot more space to insert a realistic object into the scene.


The next trick is to match the lighting. In this example, an IKEA shelf (complete with books and magazines) is embedded in place of the band poster. IKEA would have to pay Warner Brothers (both of which pay flickr, of course, who hopefully then pays you!) for the right to advertise these shelves to your audience.


Rolling over the shelf results in catalogue information being displayed. Clicking could then pause the video, but allow you to inspect the shelf in three dimensions, including zooming in for more detail. (I don’t know why you’d want to zoom into the details of an IKEA shelf, but it was a conveniant example.)


Companies will need to encourage users to display or capture these augmented reality markers in their pictures and videos. Revenue sharing and giving the users some control over what is displayed would go a long way. Imagine an Augmented Adsense of sorts, where you could set parameters over what type of images are embedded, and track how much you earn.


Then you could choose and change the poster you wanted to have hanging on the wall behind you, without leaving your chair, and get paid to do it.

Augmented Reality Markers will find their way onto T-shirts, changing the way we see concert footage. They will find their way on to cars and buses, changing the way we see streaming traffic camera feeds. They will find their way onto the logo-dotted backdrops of red carpet galas, so that photo-opps of celebrities become even richer marketing opportunities. They will find their way onto signage at popular vacation destinations so your family travel photos become ads for future vacationers…

The possibilities are endless, but the plausibility is up to you. Do you look forward to this new potential revenue stream, or are you repulsed by the idea of marketers placing ads deep inside your own creations? Please discuss.

Note: Big thanks to Torley who posted a video on flickr using the Creative Commons license of Attribution and Share Alike, which gave me permission to change it and use it for this post.