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Augmented reality takes small steps toward magic leaps

A smiley rainbow from Snapchat’s World Lenses app brightens up an outside photo.

Snap Communications

A smiley rainbow from Snapchat’s World Lenses app brightens up an outside photo.

The AR Revolution (as I will go ahead and start calling the soon-to-be-ubiquitous rise of augmented reality) is so close you can almost touch it.

Or, at least, it feels like you can. It’s right there, a big smiley rainbow happily hanging out over the coffee table in my living room, and it looks kind of cuddly.

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Technically, this is just one of a handful of decidedly intangible 3-D digital objects you can now drag into your photo and video snaps on Snapchat by way of the app’s new “World Lenses” feature.

Much like the standard-issue Lenses that in 2015 gave Snapchat a second wind by allowing users to superimpose all kind of responsive animations onto their selfies (and terrorize their children in the process), World Lenses apply similar surface-scanning technology to the world at large, which, once captured by your camera, becomes a sort of virtual diorama for you to decorate.

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Thus, you can now indicate the grossness of a given lunch by having a green, drippy, “GROSS” hanging over the plate. You can swipe to sow magical seeds that bloom into glimmering flowers all over the kitchen. Or you can summon that happy rainbow (or its sibling, a sad rain cloud) to more clearly channel the vibe of any scene.

You’re probably waiting for the “revolutionary” part. Just hold your virtual horses.

On the same day as Snapchat’s happy rainbow rollout, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took the stage at F8, the company’s annual developer conference, to announce that all things augmented reality would soon comprise the next big visionary push from the social media behemoth.

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Debuting Facebook’s new Camera Effects Platform, Zuckerberg used the conference as an open call to developers dabbling in AR to experiment with apps that find new frontiers for the technology to thrive.

This could be a chess game between you and your old dorm mate in Tokyo, indefinitely resumable on each of your dining room tables. It could be virtual clues pinned to trees around town for an augmented reality scavenger hunt. It could be a creative/social tool to let friends author thought bubbles to hover over the heads of mutual friends livecasting their first date. I just came up with these. Someone go make that money.

The point is that the expansion in earnest of AR across platforms as populous as Facebook and Snapchat means more than just sharks swimming around in your cereal.

These early entries signal a broader shift that will prove as significant as the emergence of the smartphone: The elimination of the smartphone.

“Think about how many of the things around us don’t actually need to be physical,” Zuckerberg told the New York Times last week. “Instead of a $500 TV sitting in front of us, what’s to keep us from one day having it be a $1 app?”

So while the spread of AR will have a sweeping impact on how we stream, socialize (and/or swipe through strangers) and Crush our respective Candy, perhaps the most significant impact of the technology will be the reduced impact of technology: a world of diminishing, and eventually vanishing devices. (How Snapchat!)

It might not be long before the figurative Lenses of apps like Snapchat become very literal ones. Snap Inc. has already launched its own hardware Spectacles (that make Google Glass look like . . . well, Google Glass). Sony’s HoloLens AR headset launched last year, and Facebook, Sony, and Google are already gazing into a future where we contact our contacts through our contacts.

And ever popping up in the background, the mysterious (Google and Alibaba backed) AR venture Magic Leap continues to mystify. NBA player Andre Iguodala, who was offered a rare chance to try the Florida startup’s technology, described it as “a disruption of life.” (Which sounds fun.)

This long-game vision for AR helps explain why camera-first tweaks have been so pervasive across Facebook’s whole suite of social apps (like Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger). It’s all a way of priming the turf for what could soon be an explosively fertile field — bursting with winking daisies, beckoning you closer, and asking for your credit card.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.
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