I was out with my daughter today and we went to a garden centre.
To be more precise, I was out with both my daughters - one went indoor climbing with her friend, and the elder and I went off for a hot frothy milk and a coffee, respectively, in the garden centre.
Garden centres are strange places - for a non-gardner like me it's mostly just stuff for other people to buy - mostly, it has to be said, for a generation that arrived before I did.
But this one, like most, had a book section. Again, mostly gardening and cookery books and books about how the town looked 100 years ago. Aeroplane books and war books.
And children's books. Which is where I get to the point of all this.
We picked up this Augmented Reality Fairy book. Now, the daughter that nagged me to buy it is the kind that never gives up and gets very enthusiastic for a while, then moves on to the next opportunity very quickly. So I was a little reluctant at first.
But it was discounted down to only a fiver, and had marker-based AR, which I always find fun to see, and guessed the rest of the family would enjoy too. So I bought it.
Now I have to say that I was almost as excited to try it out as my daughter, and she and I sat together at the Mac and got it going. She was delighted, of course.
You point the webcam at the open page and it detects which page it is and creates a superimposed fairy scene. You can activate various things, like getting a fairy to appear and cast fairy dust around.
The grand finale is to hold a card disk in your palm and entice a fairy by hitting various keys to add fruit and flowers to a cup. So it's like you're holding this fairy in the palm of your hand.
When the family saw all this, there was plenty of "wow"ing and "ooh"ing.
But really, it was pretty basic - just a simple animated 3D scene. It was the fact that it keyed itself onto a physical thing - the book page or the disc - that gave it such a compelling edge. So engaging was this illusion, that my daughter apologised to the fairy when she turned the page and made her vanish!
Augmented Reality and Magic
For a long time, computers have lived in an abstract virtual place in our lives - only interacting properly with reality when printing something out on paper, or arranging for a package to arrive the next day from Amazon. Maybe video calling has a bit of that reality-engagement, too.
Smartphones are better at integrating into our physical lives, with their sensors for orientation and GPS and their cameras.
But when you combine those sensors and a 3D display within an AR app, you can create magic.
The kind of magic that is possible when the unlimited creative universe of the virtual can start to invade our physical environment in truly tangible and compelling ways.