Helping Augmented Reality Reach Its Potential

Several IEEE activities bring awareness to the technology’s possibilities

21 July 2014

Augmented reality—which provides a digitally enhanced view of the world by adding layers of computer-generated video, graphics, and text on top of the real thing—is growing in popularity, spurred by mobile devices and apps. Point your smart phone at a mountain and an app will give you its name, altitude, and distance. Another app could guide you around a city, identifying attractions, landmarks, restaurants, and hotels as you approach them.

While these are application-based programs, browser-based versions are also available. These, for example, could let you assemble the features you might want in a new car, tour the inside of a house that’s for sale, or model eyeglass frames on your own photograph. And much more is expected of the technology now that Google Glass, a wearable form of AR, is expected to go on sale to the general public soon.

But for the technology to soar, at least two things must happen. Would-be users must be educated about AR’s capabilities. And technical standards must be written to ensure that the apps and browser programs are compatible and will operate together. That’s where the IEEE Standards Association (IEEE-SA) comes in. It has taken a leading role here—holding webinars, launching consensus-reaching activities, and exhibiting at leading conferences several AR apps of its own.

“You can augment material from just about any technology using any type of platform,” says Mary Lynne Nielsen, technology initiatives director for the IEEE-SA, in Piscataway, N.J., which oversees AR activities. She also sees it as a cross-cutting technology because “AR affects sensors, networking, bandwidth, personal area networks, and body area networks for wearable technology, to name just a few—all areas where IEEE has standards.”

Launched earlier this year, the IEEE webinars and Google+ Hangout discussions are hosted by IEEE Member Christine Perey, a leading industry expert on open and interoperable AR. The webinars and hangouts deal with AR’s impact on privacy and its applications in such areas as wearable technology and urban planning.


AR can be traced back, at least as a concept, to the 1960s, says Perey, in her 50-minute “Introduction to Augmented Reality” webinar. She covers the history of the technology, what’s behind its popularity, and the technical aspects of developing the applications. She credits computer scientist and Internet pioneer Ivan Sutherland with detailing in 1965 his vision of an “ultimate display” that would combine the digital with the physical worlds.

But AR became practical for everyday use only about five years ago. This was when the cameras, compasses, GPS units, and sensors of all kinds were combined with access to information through the cloud. Today, AR is being used by a number of industries, including banks to help customers find the nearest automated teller machines; utility companies to locate underground pipes and electric power lines; and car manufacturers to design, manufacture, repair, and maintain their vehicles.


For AR to be really successful, the apps must work together, which is not the case today. To that end, the IEEE-SA established the Augmented Reality Industry Connections group to address interoperability issues while promoting AR to the widest possible audience. Its goals are to identify the needs and propose new standards and best practices for AR technologies.

But the IEEE-SA can’t do this alone. It is inviting AR developers, technology providers, users, and educators to join the AR group.  

It will work to specify requirements and suggest approaches to addressing gaps in tools and standards. To find out more, check out the website devoted to IEEE-SA’s activities in AR.


IEEE-SA has exhibited at several AR conferences to get out the word of its activities, including at the Augmented World Expo in May. This is the world’s largest augmented reality trade show, bringing together top innovators of wearable computing, digital eyewear, and gesture devices and sensors.

It was at this meeting that the IEEE-SA issued its City Visions challenge, asking AR developers to design working proof-of-concept applications for smarter cities. It even created an interactive mural to demonstrate how IEEE standards can supply the underlying technical framework of a connected city. When holding a mobile device up to the City Visions mural, the user becomes a “connected person” and can view and interact with how IEEE standards would be interwoven into the fabric of a wired city.

But as with so much else these days, privacy is an important issue. Caution is advised.

While these applications can make our lives easier, they can also gather all sorts of private information. The experts on the 60-minute panel discussion “AR and Privacy” expressed concern over the inability to maintain a person’s privacy in public places, with so many cameras in play and the tagging of photos by AR apps. They feared it could, for example, lead to the commercialization of people’s images without their consent.

“Tagging does make things different,” says John C. Havens, a contributing writer for The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and Mashable, the social media news outlet. “It’s not just about privacy and not just about taking pictures. It’s about a person’s core identity being used by others for commercial purposes without their permission.”

Notes Jules Polonetsky, former chief privacy officer for AOL: “We used to have some obscurity when we were in public. We were anonymous.” Polonetsky is now executive director and cochair of the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank concerned about responsible data practices. “Because of facial recognition and algorithms, my identity can be tracked around multiple stores or looked up in databases,” he says. “It’s happening today with companies aggregating data from your phone. We are now starting to see commercial uses.”

But others display cautious optimism. Dawn Jutla, a professor of business and computer science in the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, believes a measure of control over AR applications is possible.

“But control has to be built in from the beginning,” she says. “Engineers will play a huge role in protecting people’s privacy and will build in those measures.” She believes it will take a whole set of stakeholders working together to insist privacy controls are needed with commercial AR applications.

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