I attended the second annual Augmented Reality Event conference in Santa Clara, Calif., in May and it was … interesting.

OK, it was a huge geekfest. The opening session was interrupted by people dressed in hazardous waste — or maybe they were supposed to be pseudo-astronaut — outfits, yelling about “free space,” while wrapping the audience in yellow caution tape.

Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist, composer, visual artist and free thinker best known for coining the term “virtual reality,” opened his keynote speech by playing the khene, a traditional Laotian wind instrument that he says was the earliest conveyor of digital information.

Jaron Lanier at ARE 2011 from locative media on Vimeo.

But somewhere in the excitement of innovators being able to make Roger Hargreaves-style characters race across a flat surface if you hold your smartphone camera just so, were hints of what augmented reality, or AR, could do for the media industry.

Content needs to catch up

The two sessions devoted to content and AR were somewhat underwhelming, so you had to really use your imagination. Helen Papagiannis, an artist, designer, researcher and Ph.D. candidate, said content has to catch up to technology, but then she went on to show a live demonstration of making a virtual tarantula appear on her hand. Kinda cool. And Adriano Farano, a Knight Fellow at Stanford University, showed how he was able to superimpose photographs of what the university quad looked like just before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

That later got me to thinking about Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Joplin, Mo., and how some enterprising visual journalist, using AR and Microsoft’s Bing maps and Photosynth technology, could virtually restore those communities for the people who live there and for future generations who won’t know the towns as they used to be.

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Innovega’s iOptik display system

Over in the showcase sessions, Innovega demonstrated how a special contact lens and sunglasses that look like Ray Bans (not the Geordi La Forge eyewear from Star Trek New Generation that you see in Sky Mall magazine) can project a 200-inch screen. That could almost make a transcontinental plane trip bearable. And the ladies at Clothia may have finally cracked the online clothes-buying nut with technology that not only lets you “try on” clothes, but photograph existing pieces and pair them with new ones you want to buy.

MVS Labs demonstrated a heads-up, in-car device that can display safety symbols, collision warnings, and drivers’ map preferences. Maybe soon it will displace radio traffic reports with real-time warnings about upcoming delays.

Many of the speakers at ARE 2011 were keenly aware of the hype around virtual worlds and information, as well as the lack of standards. AR, after all, is still very new, and those of us who are developing in the space realize how inconvenient it is to walk around holding a Droid or an iPad to our eyes all the time. Heads-up displays and new technology such as NFC (Near-Field Communication) as well as content providers getting serious about what information users might really want in a virtual reality will help the medium mature.