In Depth

Augmented Reality: fun and games at the British Museum

What can AR do for us? While we wait for Magic Leap to reveal its secrets, here’s the current reality

Columnist Edie Lush

The website of Magic Leap, the Florida start-up that recently announced it had raised $542 million from Silicon Valley investors led by Google to develop a new kind of Augmented Reality, gives very little away.  

There are some pictures of seahorses floating above a school desk and a few well chosen words about dragons making the world a better place.  It isn't clear exactly how you’ll see these dragons - though apparently not through a headset like Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift or even Google Glass. Perhaps they’ll appear when you pop something in your eyes like contact lenses?  

Secrecy is high at Magic Leap and reading the patents doesn’t reveal much beyond making you wonder what a ‘Waveguide Reflector Array Projector’ using ‘magnetic liquid’ really means. 

So what can Augmented Reality actually do for us? I’ve seen what its cousin Virtual Reality can do for the military - USC’s Institute of Creative Technologies has goggles that help soldiers recover from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as help you explore Mars.

In fact Augmented Reality is slightly easier to get your head around because it works with the actual world you live in, not one created by a pair of goggles. It superimposes non-real things, like dragons, into the world you walk around and look at through your own eyes.  

Ford, the car giant, is betting we’ll want our navigation instructions delivered by Augmented Reality onto our windscreens. Imagine, instead of taking your eyes off the road to look at the dashboard satnav screen you’ll “see” the right turn arrow appear as if on the road in front of you. Ford announced this week that it’s paying Israeli start-up Mishor 3D an undisclosed sum to make just this kind of thing happen in Ford’s mid-range and high-end cars by 2016.   

In other Augmented Reality news, the University of Liverpool Veterinary School has launched a new teaching app which allows students to hold their smartphone up to the image of a horse and see the horse's entire internal anatomy in three dimensions. Lecturer Avril Senior explained: "Students can see through to the 'inside' of a horse just by holding up their smartphone. They can then relate this to the patients they are seeing in the clinic."

Not having the need for a 3D horse heart or being on the list to test-drive Ford’s new navigation system I tried out a more readily available AR app - Gamar - with five other device-savvy customers (my three children, a friend and my husband) at the weekend. 

Gamar (the name combines Game with AR - clever) makes museums come alive with their smartphone app. Gamar works with museum curators to make historically accurate games which work by using Augmented Reality and animation. 

This falls into the 'teach by stealth' category and it sounded to me like a parent’s dream.  Who wouldn’t like to take their kids to the British Museum without hearing an hour of whining about it beforehand? In my house, a Greek chorus of “Why do we have to go to that boring museum full of old grey rocks?” started to chime until I mentioned that everyone got to take a device inside.

Gamar's first game, A Gift for Athena, makes use of the impressive Parthenon exhibit at the BM.  In one section you re-arrange mixed up pieces of a centaur shown which - upon becoming whole - leaps into action and requires you to battle it to continue the game. This rather flummoxed my seven-year- old, but my 11-year-old and I figured it out in about three seconds: "You just keep whacking the centaur with your sword. Eventually it dies."

Here are the good things we learned: the names of main gods and goddesses of ancient Greece (and what they are the god of - like Aphrodite, the goddess of love), the story of Athena, what the Parthenon looked like before it crumbled and was brought to London, what centaurs were and how they fought. We spotted helmets, wine pots, Hermes's staff, horses' heads and much else.

We also learned a few things that weren’t so great. Namely, Augmented Reality can be expensive. We hadn’t downloaded the games before travelling to the British Museum and, with half of our six devices being SIM-free, had to join the British Museum for a cool £82 so we could use their members’ cafe’s WiFi. Which was patchy and required multiple attempts to download on some of the older phones.   

Also, Augmented Reality can eat up your memory.  The 11-year-old had to delete all of the videos on his phone and half of the apps, including Flappy Bird and Skype, which made him cross. My old iPhone 4 crashed a few times playing the game, making the eight-year-old unhappy. 

Also, light matters. By the time we’d deleted the necessary apps, drank the hot chocolate in the members’ cafe and downloaded the game onto all of the phones and tablets it was 4pm.  Half an hour later the light was fading quickly and the game stopped working. Which for kids, turned the killer app into a bit of a buzz kill. 

When I spoke to Colin Grant, head of marketing for Gamar, he said that when creating the game they take extensive numbers of photographs of all of the statues from every angle at different times of day to try to combat this issue. Interestingly, the software also “learns” when people use it. Hopefully it learned something from the Lush family’s visit on Sunday!

This isn’t to say it was a disaster.  It wasn’t at all. No one mentioned boring rocks. I think they actually learned something (I did, anyway). In fact, looking at the experience philosophically, what Augmented Reality did was augment the reality I live every day.  

Sometimes I have to throw money at problems to make them go away, sometimes my kids learn stuff I want them to: nothing really works out the way I plan, but that's usually ok, and usually stuff I do is fun, even if not in the way I thought it was going to be. And technology - while life-changing - is often deeply irritating and I spend more time than I'd like watching the spinning circle of death on my phone.

So, will I do it again? Yes. Colin was nice enough to send me the pictures of the Parthenon so that the kids could play the game again outside of the British Museum. When I asked them if they wanted to, the answer was a resounding ‘Yes’. Just not on my crappy iPhone 4.

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