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Pop-Up Clues to the Real World

Clued In to the Real World by Computer?

Forget about virtual reality where computers create an artificial world that people can wander through. The next big thing may be so-called augmented reality — in which portable computers supply users with information about the real world around them.

The setup uses a small, wearable computer with special goggles and a global positioning satellite receiver. The computer uses the GPS receiver to pinpoint a person's location. Once it's figured out where a person is, it can pull up relevant information about nearby landmarks or objects from a database. The information is then displayed on the transparent goggles so it appears suspended over the object the person is looking at.

"You could look at a building and get all the history and information about that building," says Bill Phillips of Popular Science magazine. "Or you could look at a restaurant and find out what today's specials are."

Sound farfetched? Perhaps. But Phillips says the military is already playing with prototypes that are connected via a wireless computer network. By tying in additional computers and other sources of data — spy satellites, reconnaissance planes, thermal cameras — the soldiers of tomorrow could have a real fighting edge.

For example, such a system could alert soldiers of a friendly helicopter by displaying it in green on the soldier's eye-level display. And by pulling in additional data — say, from an airborne unmanned aerial vehicle — it may even pinpoint and warn the soldier of an nearby enemy sniper.

Such augmented reality systems aren't just the work of the military. Researchers at Columbia University in New York have been experimenting with a system calls MARS. "It's a fancy term for what is kind of a makeshift augmented reality system that uses a Dell [laptop] computer, a GPS hookup and a cell phone and goggles," says Phillips.

However, that system fills an entire backpack and "it's a bit cumbersome for now," says Phillips. "[Users] certainly wouldn't want to wear it on the subway"


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