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Michael Liedtke (AP) Michael Liedtke (AP)
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Augmented reality a different kind of tech trip

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SAN FRANCISCO Virtual reality is a trip, but an even wilder ride could be around the corner as mind-bending startups and technology trendsetters try to emblazon the world with interactive holograms that enlighten, entertain and empower us.

The concept, known as augmented reality, looks like something out of a science-fiction movie. Think Tony Stark, the comic-book character who scans information-filled holograms beamed in front of his 'Iron Man' mask, or John Anderton, the character that Tom Cruise played while flipping through digital screens floating in the air in 'Minority Report.'

It hasn't yet advanced as far as virtual reality, which is getting attention with this week's release of the much-hyped Oculus Rift headset from Facebook.

But augmented reality has the potential to touch far more people because it's designed as a seamless supplement to everyday living instead of an escape into the artificial dimensions conjured by VR, which so far revolves around video games and 360-degree video clips.

'Augmented reality is going to have a lot more practical applications simply because there are a lot more people out there who interact with things in the real world,' says Greg Kipper, who studied the technology's potential in his book, 'Augmented Reality: An Emerging Technologies Guide to AR.'

With augmented reality, the three-dimensional holograms seen through a headset are meant to be a helpful or amusing companion to the real world. When you walk through a grocery aisle, you might see a list of ingredients for making an Italian dish appear on a virtual screen before your eyes. Or an image of the solar system might start orbiting around you as you read an astronomy book.

Don a VR headset, though, and you're surroundings are blocked off. You are cast into a different world, as a dinosaur charges through a jungle, or you're on the precipice of a 100-story skyscraper looking perilously at the street below. It has a lot in common with an amusement park ride, including the tendency to cause nausea or dizziness if you wear a VR headset too long.

While startups like Meta, Magic Leap and Atheer have been making the most visible progress in augmented reality so far, technology heavyweights are also eyeing it.

Microsoft has just started shipping a $3,000 version of its augmented reality headset, HoloLens, to a limited audience of computer programmers, while Alphabet Inc.'s Google has been a key investor in the $1.3 billion that Magic Leap has raised during the past two years. Apple Inc. signaled its interest last year when it bought a startup called Metaio, spurring speculation that the iPhone maker is exploring ways to infuse the project in its future products.

Meta, a Silicon Valley startup with about 100 employees, is scheduled to ship its second-generation headset this summer. It's being sold as part of a $949 kit tailored for programmers to design more three-dimensional, interactive applications for the new headset.

If Meta CEO Meron Gribetz realizes his vision, his company will spawn a new form of computing that will be just as revolutionary as the graphical interface that enabled personal computers to be controlled with a mouse and the touch-screen technology that helped turn smartphones into indispensable utilities. He describes Meta's technology as 'an extension of your mind because it is built on the principles of your mind.'

Instead of staring at display screens while pecking at clunky keyboards, Gribetz foresees people navigating through an array of holographic screens suspended in front of their faces and controlled with the touch of their hands. Virtual keyboards will appear for data entry.

People will be able to reach into their holographic screen, pull out a drawing of the human anatomy and remove the skeleton to study. Or they might look inside a shoe they are thinking of buying. Phone calls will become obsolete as everyone in a conversation appears as holograms that can exchange documents and data.

'Virtual reality is cool, but it's just a stepping stone to augmented reality,' says Gribetz, 30. 'We are going to build something that is 100 times easier to use than the Macintosh and 100 times more powerful.'


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