“You unlock this door with the key of imagination,” begins the introductory monologue of The Twilight Zone. “Beyond it is another dimension. A dimension of sound. A dimension of sight. A dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas.” 

With less sinister implications, the words would have been a fitting preface to Imagine the World in 4D, the first 4-D expo from augmented reality developer DAQRI, held at the company's headquarters on the Los Angeles Center Studios campus downtown. The three day conference and exposition invited students, bloggers, and various leaders of industry to attend lectures and demonstrations on the “4th dimension” of augmented reality, and how it will change the way we experience – and interact – with the world through virtual content.

But what exactly is “augmented reality”? With definitions that range from the complex to head-achingly bombastic, the most digestible phrase sounds something like “a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user's view of the real world.”

Okay, so maybe a more practical point of entry is to describe its various applications. ]
Imagine looking at a physical object like a magazine through the camera on your phone. As you turn the pages, the magazine's photos begin doing that Harry Potter thing and come to life in your hands, be it in the form of a video or as a 3-D model, seemingly standing off the page. Or imagine a pair of cubes, each imprinted with an element from the Periodic Table, that when physically pressed together display the reaction between the elements as a 3-D model. DAQRI demonstrated each of these, through its 4-D campaign with Maxim Magazine and its Elements 4D cubes. But this is only the beginning of augmented reality and its untold possibilities.

For some, there may be little appeal in the idea of a world where, as you walk down the grocery aisle, boxes of cereal each project their colorful mascot in 3-D with additional pop-ups informing consumers of the latest bargains. And while many of the current uses of augmented reality have a feeling of novelty about them – one demonstration showed a child place a Build-A-Bear on the flat screen of a tablet-like instrument and begin “washing it” as digital water rippled beneath it – its more practical uses could very well lead to a renaissance in specialized fields.

Another example of augmented reality, showing Bradbury Building with a virtual mural, accessed through your tablet; Credit: Courtesy HeavyPAC

Another example of augmented reality, showing Bradbury Building with a virtual mural, accessed through your tablet; Credit: Courtesy HeavyPAC

See also: New Project Hopes to Turn Building Facades Into Virtual Murals You Can See on Your iPhone

In the world of industrial design, for example, various expo representatives painted a future in which, for instance, a mechanic wearing futuristic glasses can look at your engine and not only immediately recognize what's wrong with it but also have 3-D projections illustrate exactly what gears need to be tightened and how to do it. Such advances will inevitably improve a company's bottom-line by increasing the accuracy and speed of production and measuring a worker's effectiveness, while also eliminating the need for extensive training and printed resources.

In the world of education, presenters expounded on the need for a more media-savvy (and ADD-prone) generation to be able to dynamically participate with their studies rather than dryly memorize static content. Instead of trying to visualize the volume of a cone from a 2-D drawing, imagine being able to manipulate a 3-D rendering of the object. At the very least, it'll certainly make common word problems like “Which train will reach the station first?” more interesting if you're able to see the trains themselves moving along the track. With the accessibility of such tools, the environments surrounding them will change, creating a new face for the classroom and workspace of the future.

By the end of expo, talk bounced between excitement and confusion. While many toyed with the features of DAQRI's newly launched 4D Studio app, allowing users to easily customize their products with augmented reality, a self-admitted older generation sat about with frustrated expressions as they attempted to educate their employers (via the tyranny of 2-dimensional email on their smartphones) on what exactly augmented reality is and how it can benefit their company. Peppered in for good measure were discussions on the psycho-social implications of augmented reality vs. virtual reality, and how it could negatively affect a generation raised to interact with objects that aren't “real,” giving one the impression of being in a Richard Linklater film. Meanwhile, a few proud wearers of Google Glass walked about in their futuristic manner, perhaps with a slight look of anxiety, as if at any moment they were expecting some sort of confrontation.

At the very least, everyone seemed to be in agreement that what they were seeing is important, that the world they know is about to change, and that this is the kind of relatively low-tech symposium that will one day lead to a utopia of newly-accessible information, or, worse case scenario, a world where humans become mere extremities to the computers that handle all forms of higher thinking.  

In either case, it's a technology whose full potential remains only slightly “down the road,” a phrase that was often repeated during the three day event. The road, it seems, may not be as long as you think.

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