Augmented reality may sound like something from the ’60s or what we used to do in college with various reality “enhancers,” but the technology is really more about tuning in than turning on, and it’s definitely not about dropping out.

At heart, the concept of augmented reality is to make available all the information we want about whatever place we happen to be whenever we want it. So for instance, if you’re walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood in Manhattan, augmented reality would be the capability to get information about the restaurants on the block, coffee shops with Wi-Fi and nearby bus and subway stops, superimposed on the live picture of the street you’re looking at on your smart phone screen. The aim is to create the ultimate “mash-up” of the virtual and real worlds, making all the information available on the Internet about your current location available immediately on your smart phone.

The capabilities have been building ever since we first put GPS devices in our cars to track where we are and tell us how to get there from here. That now-commonplace capability has been enhanced by bringing in real-time traffic data and other useful information, such as details about the places of business and points of interest at our destination with links to phone numbers and websites.

Augmented reality seeks to take that a few steps further. For instance, as we walk down the street with our smart phone’s video camera on, data about the place we’re walking by would appear on the screen. Using the restaurant example, we could move from the live picture to the restaurant website, perhaps take a virtual tour of the dining room, look at the menu, read reviews from other diners, find out about the chef, and maybe make a reservation. If it’s the kind of place with a bit of history, we could even read about it so we can impress our dinner companions when they arrive. We could even track their progress through the neighborhood as they approach the restaurant.

We’re already used to seeing augmented reality in televised football games where the line of scrimmage and first down line are superimposed on the image of the real field. To get an idea of where the technology is headed, imagine you’re at the game itself with your augmented reality glasses on. Not only do you see those superimposed lines, but you can also call up all the statistics about the teams and players, just as the TV crew does for the folks on the couch back home.

What’s making this possible is the increasing sophistication of smart phones and the ever-expanding reach and power of mobile broadband networks. With always-on Internet access and GPS capability enhanced with digital compasses and visual search technology, our smart phones will be able to recognize where we are—even if we don’t—and then tell us all about it.

Already, a number of augmented reality applications are being developed for both Apple’s iPhone and phones running the Google Android system.

Google’s “Near Me Now” mobile phone search feature, for instance, uses the location of your phone to display the businesses around you. The Yelp restaurant and shopping review site offers a feature called Monocle that allows smart phone users to call up contributed reviews of nearby restaurants, bars and businesses. For travelers, Acrossair offers an iPhone application that displays the nearest subway, tube or metro station in New York, London, Paris, Tokyo and other cities.

Google is also developing a visual search technology for mobile phones, called Google Goggle, that would allow users to search for information about a landmark or business by taking a picture of the site, say Union Station in Washington, and then search the Internet using the image instead of words to find information.

A bigger step toward augmented reality is the Layar application from the Dutch company of the same name. Launched last year in Holland for Android phones, the Layar Reality Browser enables users to get information from real estate to jobs, ATMs and bars or even take guided tours as they view the neighborhood through their phone.

After smart phones, the next step is to put the same kind of information in front of our eyes on a visor display or even eyeglasses or contact lenses, kind of a heads-up display for real life. Of course, once we get used to augmented reality, we have to wonder whether mere real reality will be enough.