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As any self-respecting nerd knows, science fiction films such as RoboCop and Terminator have long predicted technology that allows users to integrate matrices of streaming data into what they see. Thanks to augmented reality, the future is upon us — but it uses cell phones and webcams, not cyborg appendages. Informally known as AR, augmented reality merges virtual and real worlds using a layer of digital information. Thanks to advances in GPS compassing, image recognition, and high-speed bandwidth, the technology seems perfect for travelers, businesspeople, and gamers alike — but discerning the helpful from the hype has never been trickier.

Although AR can include everything from the systems used in fighter jets to holographic keyboards, the most practical uses for the technology — at least in its current state — involve supplying localized information to those on the go. Layar, an application preloaded on Android phones and available free for iPhones, shows maps, real estate, restaurants, bars, and optional clusters of information left by other users through the camera viewfinder. In its iPhone app, review site Yelp.com surreptitiously included an unlockable “Easter egg” that fl oats the site’s cache of reviews alongside the real-life establishments (yes, there’s great pad thai only 200 feet away from where you’re standing). Cyclopedia places Wiki info over GPS images, and other programs locate cars, identify constellations, or navigate subway systems in New York, Paris, London, and Tokyo.

While remembering where you parallel parked the Pinto is helpful, the future of AR is potentially littered with digital clutter. Advertisers and marketers are enthusiastic about this expanding canvas: Companies including Hearst, Time Inc., Frito-Lay, and Nestlé have integrated AR into webcam campaigns via games, music, and video. (For example, Kia Motors rustled up a quirky little application in which players use a digital forehead-mounted magnet to deposit animated hamsters into vehicles.) ABI Research estimates that advertising dollars spent on augmented reality will reach $170 million by 2014.

Who knows what AR will look like in the future? With facial-recognition technology, virtual name tags may replace business cards or even driver’s licenses. Parents could keep tabs on their children’s movements overlaid above a Google map of their neighborhood. Possibilities in the entertainment realm are truly limitless: City streets could be transformed into a digital treasure hunt or even a multiplayer action-adventure game. And if (or when, really) AR becomes part of eyewear, the merging of the digital and real worlds may become as normal as having, oh, a cell phone.