On February 21, 2023
Augmented reality is all around us and it’s been helping Hollywood storytellers tell their adventures for a very long time and will probably continue to do so in the future.
AR tech is improving all the time and films on the big screen are often a vision of future technology that’s not even that far off.
A drifter discovers a pair of sunglasses that allow him to wake up to the fact that aliens have taken over the Earth. That’s basically the premise of They Live, and if you haven’t seen it, get yourself down the virtual video shop now.
But little did they know that the creators behind the film would actually detail a life of AR that will be possible in the future. Okay so there probably aren’t aliens amongst us, but the idea of putting on a pair of glasses and seeing something that others can’t is what AR is all about.
Interestingly though, it rather works in reverse in the case of They Live. What, in fact, is going on is that everyone without the glasses can see the AR and it actually takes wearing the shades to be able to see what’s really going on behind the computer-generated facade.
There’s a good reason that there’s augmented reality in Top Gun and that’s because it’s the technology that actually exists in fighter jets.
The HUDs fitted in the cockpits of the F-14s as flown by Maverick and co. is the original reason why these things are called heads-up displays. The idea is that the pilots can keep their heads up and on the action rather than down and lots in their instruments.
This is probably the best example of AR out there. It’s clear, simple with just the right amount of information not to distract from what’s going on and there are even the beeping sounds as well which let the pilot know whether they’ve got a lock on or someone has got a lock on them – another example of AR in itself, only this time through audio. The craziest part of all? This stuff existed in good working order in 1986 before the phrase augmented reality even existed.
We’ve had a big old debate as to whether this example of AR in Total Recall is actually AR at all.
No one is questioning that it’s a superb idea and a really interesting vision of the future of security checks but is there actually and real-life component to what you see or is it entirely virtual?
The actual part is clear and there is a definite overlay of information as the real people walk past but if what’s on the screen is all computer-generated, does it really count?
We’ll leave you to make your minds up about that one but, either way, we’re willing to bet that there are some undeniable examples of AR at least once in this 90s classic.
Probably one of the finest examples in the movies of what AR could do given to a fully automated robot or Terminator in this case.
In the various Terminator movies (most notably Terminator 2 at the start) Arnie uses his built-in computing power to measure up people for their clothes as well as later on in the film assess whether the police force that he had just unleashed hell on where still all alive.
This has got to be one of the most advanced cases of AR in a Heads Up Display. Iron Man’s suit is so kitted out with AR goodies that it gives stacks of real-time information so that Tony Stark can do what he does best.
The Iron Man films are great examples of how AR could work for future soldiers with a mainframe computer feeding live data to combatants in the field.
If you’re wondering when this is going to be possible, some of it already is. Companies like iRobot are already making small battle robots that will create a mesh network on the battlefield while computer systems do the rest feeding soldiers information on everything from distance to targets to whether or not the troops coming over the hill are friendlies.
Rather than tell you which bits aren’t using AR it’s probably easier to tell you which bits are. Tom Cruise embraces Augmented Reality with aplomb in this sci-fi set in 2054.
There’s the whole computerised sequence at the beginning where he uses his hands to find information in three-dimensional computerised space and then there’s all that AR down at the shops when the adverts start telling him what’s on offer that he’d like. The only thing Steven Spielberg, who directed the movie, got wrong, was that the AR elements of the movie are likely to be happening a lot quicker than 2054.
Also, although people often think of the part with the mid-air computer interface as one of the best examples of AR, strictly speaking, it’s not that great. Yes, there’s a clear mixing of the real and the virtual but the relationship between the two is completely irrelevant. It looks amazing but it may as well be happening on a screen. Still a breathtaking vision of the future though.
Arguably, the big blue person that Jake Sully jumps into is one big augmented reality device that allows you to experience a whole host of senses but even if you don’t count that, there are plenty of other examples in what is one of the most visually stunning sci-fi films out there.
So, rather than suggesting that we’re taking things a little too far, there are still lots of scenes in the film that feature AR. Like the big map in the HQ that shows the Na’vi’s tree, the stacks of spaceships that use HUD screens to navigate or the plenty of toys in the researcher’s lab. Take your pick.
What do you think that big helmet is on Murphy’s head is after he becomes Robocop? That’s AR working at its best giving the user, in this case, a police officer, a stream of data and information to enhance their vision and understanding of what’s around them – ie crooks and thieves.
While Tony Stark in Iron Man used his head-mounted display to make a phone call, Murphy uses his to see things like his mission objectives, sometimes to his peril, as well as pre-aim any number of targets before blasting them to smithereens with over-the-shoulder trick shots.
Augmented reality doesn’t have to be about heads-up displays in soldiers all the time, it can be used for good as well.
Take the cleaning robots who use a scanner to analyse the amount of dirt on Wall-e before chasing after him. Or the Buy ‘n’ Large displays of the people on the cruise spaceship that lets them see a very different world to the one they should see. Finally, there’s also the moment when Eve discovers the seedling on Earth and we see her little AR display of information to the fact.
The Predator’s helmet lets him see heat signals from Dutch (Arnie again) and his fellow soldiers in the jungle, as well as talking to his guns to allow him to see where to lock on.
Like with Total Recall, one could have a debate about whether the infrared scans are VR or AR and that all depends on the heat signature being the real element but being able to see the sound waves of the soldiers’ voices as well as hearing the actual sound is definitely an example of augmented reality.
At the most basic level, you could even site the laser sitting on the big guy’s shoulder cannon as an example of AR as well.
Bonus: Fight Club
While there isn’t any augmented reality in Fight Club for the characters to see, AR is used to illustrate Ed Norton’s character (The Narrator) and his love affair with the Ikea catalogue.
As he walks around his apartment, prices, labels and other details are flashed up on the screen for all to see giving us, the audience, a augmented perception of what is on show.