An emerging technology known as “augmented reality” soon will allow people peering through computer-powered goggles to overlay virtual images atop those of the real world. Researchers say the technology has practical applications for everything from law enforcement to education.

For a firefighter, a computer-aided scene might show a school’s fire exits and sprinkler connections—vital details in a fire. For a police officer responding to a school incident, the goggles could relay video surveillance images of an assailant, helping the officer get a bead on the bad guy.

And for students, the technology might provide virtual images to supplement lessons.

Chris Dede, Timothy Wirth professor of learning technology at Harvard University, envisions a scenario in which museum exhibits, for example, are augmented by virtual environments. At a panorama showing dinosaur bones found at a tar pit, the technology might depict a virtual reconstruction of the dinosaurs that were trapped at that prehistoric location.

For now, augmented reality—a clever amalgam of computing, Global Positioning System navigation, and a device that tracks a person’s head movement—lives mainly in the cluttered realm of university research labs.

The systems first are supposed to determine the user’s exact location and field of vision. Then, depending on the program running on the hard drive, the computer augments the scene with images—a yellow building label for the firefighter, a blinking red dot for the sharpshooter, a virtual reconstruction for the student.

Researchers at Columbia University are fashioning some of the innovations. There, users can strap on a backpack frame bristling with 25 pounds of antennas, batteries, and computing gear and take a tour of the upper Manhattan campus.

Instead of seeing only the university’s Greek Revival halls and tree-draped plazas, the computer goggles superimpose images of long-demolished Victorian buildings that housed an insane asylum predating the school. Building name tags pop up and disappear when you turn your head to gaze around the campus.

The project, created by Columbia’s schools of computer science and journalism, has a more pressing purpose than mere campus orientation.

The lead federal agency funding the project is the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research, which is spending $2.5 million a year on augmented-reality research.

Spurred by the deaths of United States military personnel in Somalia in 1993, the Navy wants scientists to develop a belt buckle-sized computer and slim pairs of computer glasses to help the Marines fight better in cities.

The Navy also is developing a version for amphibious landing craft that aims to guide invasion forces through minefields, fog, and other hazards. It seems plausible that the resulting technologies eventually will find their way onto school buses, say, to reduce the risk of transporting students during periods of poor visibility.

In Singapore, developers are building an augmented-reality system for a military defense of that city-state. And in Britain, researchers want to use it to “see” buried pipelines during construction projects.

Other research projects under way across the United States and elsewhere aim to use augmented reality to aid everything from surgery to education to jet engine repair.

Columbia computer science professor Steven Feiner, who gets about $150,000 per year of the Navy’s funding, is developing the visual interfaces seen by wearers of the computer goggles.

The clunky backpack system built by Feiner and his students is cobbled together from a laptop computer and a pair of GPS satellite receivers—one developed by the Russian military—along with a head tracking device, a high-speed wireless internet connection, and a tiny video camera.

When the wearer’s location tells the computer to augment the scene with an image, it pops up on a pair of Sony goggles with a see-through liquid-crystal computer display.

“We are not implying that someone should walk around with something that weighs even half of this,” Feiner said, giving a tour of his lab, where mannequin heads are scattered among computer parts and workstations. “Being able to look at stuff, and seeing information in context with that stuff, that’s what [this technology is] all about.”

Augmented reality should be ready for consumer use in a decade or so, Feiner said, and it could be ready for education even sooner.

First, U.S. soldiers will be trying it on for size.

One impetus for the Office of Naval Research’s Battlefield Augmented Reality System, known as BARS, was the 1993 battle of Mogadishu, where 18 Americans—and hundreds of Somalis—died in fierce urban combat.

A three-dimensional cityscape is one of the most treacherous battlefields, laced by tunnels and sewers below and buildings above, with clutter and traffic at street level. Enemy forces can be tough to distinguish from friendly ones. Snipers and mines could be anywhere.

In the Mogadishu battle, U.S. military personnel on a critical rescue mission got lost in the city’s sandy alleys, because street signs had been taken down.

In future city battles, U.S. soldiers with augmented-reality viewers will see labels on buildings and streets and also active details, like areas of sniper fire and locations of friendly forces, said Lawrence Rosenblum, director of virtual reality research and systems at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.

“All of a sudden, [a soldier using augmented reality] can be really involved in what’s happening and know what’s going on around him,” Rosenblum said. “We’re taking that information, giving it to him in a way that’s never been done before. That’s got to make him better.”

When such technology makes its way to the classroom, it’s bound to make teachers better, too.

Related links:
Columbia University’s Mobile Augmented Reality Systems project

Office of Naval Research’s Battlefield Augmented Reality System project

Chris Dede’s web site