Photo: Reuters
JOHANNESBURG - In July 1945, The Atlantic Monthly (Boston,) published an article by the American inventor Vannevar Bush.

Bush was an American engineer, inventor and science administrator, who during World War II was in charge of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD).

Through his office almost all wartime military research and development was carried out, including important developments in radar and the initiation and early administration of the first nuclear weapons.

The title of Bush’s article was “As We May Think”. It outlined a ground-breaking concept for a futuristic networked machine (almost similar to today’s internet-enabled devices) called the memex. Bush introduced the concept of the memex already during the 1930s, which he imagined as a form of memory augmentation involving a microfilm-based device that could store all the books, records, and communications of an individual.

This device was mechanised so that the individual could consult it with great speed and flexibility. Vannevar saw the memex as an augmentation of an individual’s memory by emulating the way the brain makes connections by association rather than by indexes and traditional, hierarchical storage paradigms.

After thinking about the potential of augmented memory for several years, Bush set out his thoughts at length in “As We May Think”, predicting that “wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified”.

Bush’s descriptions were a powerful precursor to present-day digital technology and could just as well have described modern personal computers, tablets or wearable computers.

Douglas Engelbart’s invention of the mouse and Ted Nelson’s creation of the terms “hypertext” and “hypermedia”, were both greatly influenced by Bush’s visionary article. Bush’s vision directly influenced researchers to create digital technology we currently consider as ordinary.

Today’s equivalent of Bush’s breakthrough is just as radical. This technology is termed “augmented reality” (AR). AR has the potential to act as a forerunner of future hi-tech transformations while forever changing the basic nature of everyday life.

At the Escape Velocity convention of 2017 Don Shin, founder of the software development company Crosscom, recreated the famous scene from Minority Report (A 2002 American dystopian future reality action film by Steven Spielberg) where Tom Cruise investigates a crime using several holographic or translucent computer screens, controlled by simple hand motions. Shin wanted to illustrate the potential of AR as both a household tool and something that looks astounding.

Shin used a custom made AR headset to create an interactive display right in front of the user that could be interacted with through hand motions. The result was a series of virtual windows overlaid over the normal field of vision in AR - unfortunately not in hologram format.

The display was intuitively designed and playing a video was as simple as reaching out and tapping it, while rewinding and fast-forwarding requires the users to grab the video and rotate their hand left or right.

A menu could be displayed simply by holding up two index fingers, and the menu would appear between them. And simply reaching out tapping the program would run it. Expanding the window was as simple as turning one’s hand over.

When properly used AR could be valuable in industry, education or even household uses, such as displaying recipes over the field of vision while cooking or keeping important information in the line of sight while working on something without having to look away at a computer.

AR is a way of amplifying the actual or physical reality to enhance information - enhancement created through the provision of additional contexts and content. AR offers data enrichment through direct superimposition onto the physical world and thus provides an interactive framework that has the potential to beneficially affect all aspects of daily life.

AR has in the past few years started to confront more robust problems and is providing solutions to real needs in the engineering, manufacturing, retail and medical fields. For instance, the Smart Reality app by JBK Knowledge enables engineers and architects to see their 2D designs and plans projected as 3D models through smartphones or tablets, which help them to get a better feel of the spatial dimensions before construction commences.

In the medical sector, AccuVein is an AR hand-held device that allows nurses and doctors to scan a patient’s body to make a vein appear visible. AccuVein led to a 45percent reduction in escalation calls, while 81percent of nurses reported that using AccuVein resulted in an improved ability to cannulate (the procedure to introduce a thin tube into a vein).

Just as the concept of the memex portended the technology of today, AR offers a similarly historically relevant leap towards the technology of the future.

Although the memex is not a direct conceptual precursor of AR, it is an example of a concept that has shaped the very building blocks of how digital devices for communication, data interaction and information enhancement have changed the fabric of our society.

Augmented reality has the potential to impact our future just as much as the memex.

Professor Louis C H Fourie is a futurist and technology strategist. [email protected]

BUSINESS REPORT