A Trillion Points of Light? Taggants as Ubiquitous AR Markers – Part 1

The concept of painting the world with tiny taggants is too big for one blog post.  In this first part, I’ll describe what I mean by “ubiquitous marking.”  In the second, I’ll outline some of the legal issues that such an approach might raise.

The nearly universal sentiment of those who spoke at the recent Augmented Reality Event (ARE2011) was that AR markers are on the way out. Markers are the odd little black-and-white designs or QR codes that most contemporary AR apps use to trigger the display of virtual imagery on the user’s screen.  These apps need to look for markers because mass-market mechanical vision technology just isn’t sophisticated enough yet to discern and recognize most real-world objects, let alone to superimpose digital data on those objects in real time (with a few primitive exceptions like I Am Autobot.)  The consensus I perceived at ARE2011 was that achieving next-generation AR–i.e., the ability to seamlessly and dynamically overlay digital data on the living, breathing, moving physical world–would depend on improving the ability of machines to see and comprehend (and therefore augment) the world around them.

But what if that consensus turned out to be 100% wrong? What if, instead of improving mechanical vision by a few orders of magnitude, it turned out to be easier to simply cover the entire world with tiny AR markers?

Mind you, I’m no programmer or hardware designer.  And I have oodles of respect for those people I met at ARE2011 who are actually putting in the hard work necessary to make this amazing technology happen.  I’m just a lawyer throwing around ideas.

I have to believe, however, that I’m not the only one to see this coming.  Consider the following:

The explosion of RFID technology. “RFID tags, a technology once limited to tracking cattle, are tracking consumer products worldwide,” reports HowStuffWorks.  “Many manufacturers use the tags to track the location of each product they make from the time it’s made until it’s pulled off the shelf and tossed in a shopping cart.  Outside the realm of retail merchandise, RFID tags are tracking vehicles, airline passengers, Alzheimer’s patients and pets. Soon, they may even track your preference for chunky or creamy peanut butter.”

A recent proposal even called for “[i]ncorporating small, edible RFID tags embedded in your food.” Such a system would allow tracking food products along the entire food chain, from production to digestion, and even enable such devices as “smart plates” that scan your meal via Bluetooth and alert you to potential food allergens.

Whether or not that ever happens, it’s safe to say that more and more of the objects in our everyday lives are going to be tagged–and, eventually, talking to each other–in the near future.  The buzzword coined to describe that infrastructure is “the internet of things,” which you can read more about here, and discuss in this LinkedIn group.

The defense industry’s investment in AR. The U.S. defense industry has long been one of the world’s primary drivers of innovation.  Much of this technology eventually trickles down to the consumer level.  The cases in point most relevant to this topic, of course, are GPS technology and the internet itself.

AR will be no different.  A clear takeaway from ARE2011 was that military spending is behind much of the innovation currently happening in the field.  Some of the start-ups represented at the conference work exclusively for the military, and venture capitalists were there looking specifically for dual-use military technology with strong potential for commercial spin-offs.

The  military’s interest in taggants. “Taggants,” according to one company who makes them, “are microscopic or nano materials that are uniquely encoded and virtually impossible to duplicate—like a fingerprint. They can be incorporated into or applied to a wide variety of materials, surfaces, products and solutions.”  Think RFID tags, but a heck of a lot smaller.

According to a recent L.A. Times article, “[e]arlier this year, the Air Force asked for proposals on developing a way to ‘tag’ targets with ‘clouds’ of unseen materials sprayed from quiet, low-flying drones.”  The paper quoted the president of one company that’s developing such nanotaggants as saying that tagging, tracking and locating “is a hot topic in government work. It isn’t easy tracking somebody in a crowded urban environment like what is seen in today’s wars.”

According to that company’s website, its “nanocrystal taggants are deployable in solvents, inks/paints, and aerosols, allowing them to be easily integrated into various [military] applications . . . and customized for the unique needs of other operations [as well].”  It already makes “nanocrystal security inks that can be incorporated directly into clear laminates, plastics, or appliqués[,] … and dye- and pigment-based inks (including black inks) for use in banknotes, concert tickets, lottery tickets, or CDs — and even in varnishes and lacquer finishes.”  The transparent, “nanophotonic” taggants are optically clear, but can be designed to respond to a specific range of UV radiation.

Add these trends together, and what do you get? A technology capable of literally painting the world with AR markers.  Micro- or nanotaggants baked into paint, plastics, asphalt, ink, or even dust would be invisible to the naked eye, but capable of marking all manner of 3-D objects in a way that appropriately equipped AR optics could potentially recognize.  We may no longer need to intentionally scan little, 2-D black squares in order to trigger digital content.  Instead, we may be able to slip on AR eyewear that automatically uses invisible pulses of energy to locate the nanotaggants embedded in physical objects and superimposes digital data on them in a crisp, seamless, precise-to-the-centimeter manner–what Blaise Aguera y Arcas of Microsoft called “Strong AR” in his ARE2011 keynote.

Time once again for a disclaimer:  I know nothing about these taggants or the companies that produce them other than what I’ve read online and imagined in my head.  I certainly do not intend any negative connotation about what these companies are doing; to the contrary, it absolutely fascinates me.  But the potential for cross-pollination between the ongoing search for ways to improve mechanical recognition of 3D objects and the inexorable march toward a ubiquitous  “internet of things” is too tantalizing not to speculate about.  Taggants could give AR hardware a robust way to finally “see” the world in three dimensions, while AR applications could create an enormous market for taggant manufacturers.

It could be the most revolutionary mashup since chocolate met peanut butter.

In Part 2 of this post, I’ll outline some of the potential legal issues that could arise in the taggant-infused world I’ve described above.