Circa 1983, if you’d asked me how I’d define the term “augmented reality,” I’d probably have pointed to the sit-down version of the popular racecar driving arcade game Pole Position. I couldn’t yet drive a car in real life, but the simulated tire screeches and rumble of my “car’s” digital engine immersed me in a world real enough to make me momentarily forget about the one outside. I guess “virtual reality” is what I would have been aiming to describe, but whatever. I’m not even sure that there was such a distinction between these definitions in 1983 — or if they even existed. I just really wanted to mention Pole Position!

Augmented Reality - Practical Fix Or Novelty Act?

So what does augmented reality mean in the 21st century? Essentially, the idea is that mobile technology can be used to enhance your real-life experiences in ways that vary based on your current location.

For instance, say you’re walking through a historical district in a town where you’ve never been. An augmented reality application might narrate and guide you through events that happened in yesteryears on the spot where you happen to be standing. It could also direct you to the closest pub so you might have a nice cold pint and reflect on everything you’ve just learned.

While sitting on your bar stool and musing over how cool the 21st century is, you might thumb through a magazine that, when scanned by your mobile device, provides additional details (such as pictures or videos) to the content you’re reading. Its naysayers might call augmented reality a novelty act, but it’s a pretty darned cool novelty act!

An excellent and very practical application of this technology is demonstrated in this video from German company Metaio at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Imagine being able to access a comprehensive user’s manual for a piece of technology that visually shows you how to fix or interact with it, and modifies its alignment based on the direction from which you’re approaching. In this demonstration, the augmented reality application Junaio (which Metaio calls “the world’s most advanced augmented reality browser”) is used to show someone how to replace toner in the printer in front of them. Also mentioned is how such technology could similarly instruct you in how to properly change the oil in your car.

So is augmented reality as cool to 2011 as Pole Position was to 1983? I guess it depends on how useful you find racecars or printers in your day-to-day life — or if you can change the oil in your own racecar without RTFM. If you want to see what augmented reality might do for you, Metaio’s Junaio can be downloaded for iPhone and Android.

Photo above shared by plantronicsgermany