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    Augmented reality and the rise of the digital object

    Surreal lets you choose from thousands of objects to insert into your digital photographs.
    Surreal lets you choose from thousands of objects to insert into your digital photographs.

    If the Internet of Things already has you browsing around for a smart trash can big enough for all of your unused gadgets, just wait until the Internet of Not Quite Things gets here.

    With the release of iOS 11 this month, Apple gave an already barreling augmented reality (AR) trend a hard shove forward. Put simply, augmented reality is technology that allows the insertion or superimposition of “digital objects” or other information on real-time environments, either through the screen of a smartphone or the lenses of a headset. 

    Apple’s newly released operating system supports all kinds of AR applications, and the company is encouraging developers to get in on the action with its proprietary ARKit. And while the majority of apps currently available in this twilight before the release of iPhones 8 and X (both far more capable of bearing the processor burdens of AR) offer buggy “experiences” that feel more like momentary distractions, the technology is already working its way into our daily lives online. 


    On social media, for instance, AR has already established itself as a commonplace feature.

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    Responsive facial filters were the first application of AR on Snapchat and (soon after, as usual) Instagram. (You can even broadcast live “in costume” on Instagram.) And in the past year, Snapchat has rolled out a rotating menu of digital objects (i.e. dancing hotdogs) that can be dragged into a scene, pinched to proper size, and staged however one pleases. (It’s your world, after all.)

    And just this past week, Snapchat introduced AR sky filters that can lend your dull landscapes otherworldly atmospherics, and AR Bitmoji, personalized 3D avatars that users design, and that respond to the environments of your photos and videos (and tend to be cuter than you IRL). 

    As for Facebook, it hasn’t played its AR hand quite yet — though its AR Studio for developers has been up and running since April, and experimental uses for its Facebook Camera platform are well underway — including the first large-scale “piece” of augmented reality art

    And outside of social media, AR is quite literally finding its way into our homes. An app created by home design retailer Houzz allows users to test over 500,000 digital pieces of furniture and decor and position them around the house (as seen through your phone) at lifesize scale in three dimensions. And IKEA has entered into the fray with IKEA Place, an app that lets you pick and place over 2,000 items wherever you like (even on a subway platform). Another app, Housecraft, bills itself as an “AR toybox for your home,” and that play on playfulness is on purpose – its fun to get creative and create a forest of ficuses in the kitchen, or a leaning tower of sofas in the driveway. 


    Elsewhere in this rapidly expanding dimension is GIPHY World, an AR extension of the beloved animated GIF service, which allows real-world realization of your favorite memes. There’s the three-dimensional ruler app MeasureKit, and Tape Measure (which can export information as CAD files). And there are new and revamped games galore, like an AR-enhanced Splitter Critters, which plops a virtual puzzle box on your coffee table.

    Developers and early adopters of AR apps and services are finding themselves in a wide open world. Enter Surreal, the first of what is sure to be a virtual mall of purveyors of AR objects – the tchotchkes of augmented reality. Surreal is reportedly readying an inventory of 100,000 digital objects created by artists from around the world. So now your house can be filled with virtual tigers, velociraptors, spiders, and, oh yes, Vuitton.

    “With Surreal, users will be able to do things like frame the ‘Mona Lisa’ on their living room wall or decorate their closet with the designer bag they’ve always wanted,” writes co-founder Dana Loberg in a press release that refers to Surreal as “The Amazon of the AR World.”

    Surreal presents an intriguing yet unsettling mix of “wow” and “ew.” While 80 percent of the revenue raised on Surreal reportedly goes to the artists, with the remaining 20 going to its parent company, the emoji marketplace MojiLala, the examples Loberg throws out serves as telling indicators of the aspirational potential that AR developers could tap into. Why buy real Louboutins, after all, when you can just swipe the virtual knockoffs into frame?

    This is tricky terrain even if you’re not in heels. If the whole premise of augmented reality is that we can furnish/clutter our world with the things we only possess in our imaginations, it’s hard not to imagine the critter becoming a beast, and the emerging economy of fake shopping generating some real revenue. (Talk about money for nothing!) For now, AR is still a far cry from QVC; the light is still coming up on this new landscape, and while the sky certainly looks strange, the view is still pretty inspiring. 

    Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at michael.brodeur@globe.
    . Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.