Metaio has been working hard for 18 months on an augmented-reality (AR) “digital box” for Lego, the Danish toy manufacturer. After being tested in a few locations, the product is now hitting Lego retail stores worldwide, and with it, consumers get a 3D image of what the toy will look like once assembled.

The idea is to hold up a box of Lego to a kiosk that consists of a webcam, a screen, and Metaio’s AR technology. Combining 3D animation with a live video feed, the assembled toy is projected on screen on top of the box the consumer is holding. It is then possible to view the finished toy on screen from all angles.

With consumer products, the costs of using something like AR have to be really low. So, instead of printing special packaging for Lego with the black and white markers sometimes involved with AR applications, the computer is using image recognition to recognize the box, eliminating the need for extra visual aids. While the system hasn’t been taught to recognize all of Lego’s hundreds of products, it does recognize a fair amount, especially toys in the City series, according to Metaio.

The effect is actually cool (watch the embedded video for how it works) and is something that Metaio thinks will help sell more products in-store. According to the company, purchase decisions in a store are mostly driven by customers’ excitement about a product. With toys like Lego, it can take hours of construction to see what the finished product really looks like. The digital box, Metaio argues, gives consumers — in this case, kids — a detailed idea of the toy when it’s assembled, thus sparking interest.

Metaio has been working on AR projects for a number of clients other than Lego, a lot of them in the automobile industry (two of the executives have a background with Volkswagen). Companies interested in applying Metaio’s technology include Toyota, Daimler, BMW, Peugeot and Volkswagen, among others. Industrial applications can involve using augmented reality in car maintenance. An example video (in German) shows a car mechanic looking at a car engine through AR goggles and seeing animated instructions projected on the live object, showing how to service the car.

According to an earlier discussion with Metaio, the company is also creating the world’s first “AR City” this year. Metaio wants to cover a certain physical location in the US with tons of AR data, which could result in very interesting proving grounds for the (still) fledgling technology. A privately held company that was founded in 2003, Metaio employs 60 people and has offices in South Korea and San Francisco, Calif. in addition to its Munich, Germany headquarters.

Metaio’s video showing the Lego kiosk in action:

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