Marvel Comics unveiled a new way to read comic books today at South by Southwest Interactive that involves an augmented reality app and the physical comic itself.

The app, called Marvel AR, is half of the entertainment company's new push to further integrate digital and print comics, an effort it's calling Marvel ReEvolution. The other half is a digital-only line of comics called Marvel Infinite Comics, which will be available to readers from the standard Marvel Comics app for free when they buy the print comic with a digital coupon, when they buy the standard digital comic, or separately as a 99-cent digital download. The first Infinite Comics story will tie in to Avengers versus X-Men and be written by Mark Waid, with art by Stuart Immonen and colors by Marte Gracia. These are big names in the comics business, so Marvel's clearly not publishing throwaway stories, even if they are digital-only and feel more disposable.

"These are more like tie-in stories that tell stories that aren't told in the comic--they're compelling because of the characters involved and that they tell stories that develop key points in the stories," Arune Singh, director of marketing at Marvel, wrote in an e-mail to CNET on Friday. "These are points you can understand without reading an Infinite comic but become more enjoyable when you've read this story."

Whereas Infinite Comics tells a superhero story available only digitally, Marvel Augmented Reality supplements the printed comic as you're reading it. Peter Phillips, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Marvel Digital Media Group, compared the AR app to DVD extras. "The AR app will show readers what the editor was thinking, what the writer was thinking, 3D extras, and pencil art."

If you're unfamiliar with how a comic gets made, viewing the uninked, uncolored pencil art is somewhat akin to watching the raw performances from actors in a science fiction movie before special effects have been added.

If that sounds mundane, it's only because you haven't seen it. When you launch the app, it opens up the camera lens. The viewfinder takes up the full size of the screen, but more importantly, the demo content that Marvel has supplied looks great. When the app sees an image it's been programmed to recognize, a little icon will appear in the corner of the screen and Marvel AR will automatically download the content and show it to you.

In the demo I saw, this included a fully colored comic panel reverting to its pencil origins and then showing inked and colored versions of itself; Marvel's editor-in-chief walking onto the screen and introducing readers to the company's Avengers versus X-Men story that's coming in April; and a 3D, movie-style animation of Iron Man.

Marvel AR is powered by Aurasma, which has been working on its augmented reality technology through parent company Autonomy's meaning-based computing for several years. Meaning-based computing is Autonomy's term for how it quickly analyzes huge droves of data from inputs like speech-recognition and text character-recognition. David Stone, director of client services at Aurasma, says readers can expect about eight AR "experiences" per comic. "We have a full content-management system, so that [Marvel] can make changes to the AR content on the fly," he said. "We are constantly scanning via the camera for unique points in the image," and those points are what the app uses to initiate the content playback.

This means two things. The first is that Marvel, or any comics company for that matter, can start building DVD extra-style options for comics that have been in print for a long time. Seeing as how comics have been published for more than a century, this could be an opportunity to more directly connect readers to the histories of not just the characters they're reading about, but the writers, artists, and other creators who made the books. Imagine listening to Jerry Robinson telling you about what he was thinking when he created The Joker, or Jack Kirby explaining his vision for The Fantastic Four.

Stone said that requiring only a few points of recognition means that the AR experiences can be more immersive. So as you're watching the 3D model of Iron Man blast off and then come back to Earth, you can angle the phone or tablet sharply away from the source image to see Iron Man from different sides as long as some visual contact is being made between the camera and the image.

"We're at the dawn of the Outernet," said Stone, who explained the term as what the Internet becomes when you can interact with it away from a PC and in the "real" world. "This takes the principle of getting computers to see the world as we do to the next step. It's been in the lab for a number of years, but it's ready now."

It's not hyperbolic to say that there's never been anything quite like it before for comics. A harder statement to make is predicting what kind of impact it's going to have on reading comics. When you experience the app through a tablet, you get a bigger viewer and so the AR content looks better. But the tablet is large and awkward to hold over a comic as you're flipping the pages. A phone is far more manageable, but its smaller viewing surface doesn't quite have the impact of a big, clear screen.

Marvel Augmented Reality will be available as a free download on April 2. The first comic that readers can use it with is Avengers versus X-Men #1, available April 4 for $3.99. Marvel's Infinite Comics, digital-only comics, will be available at the same time.

Correction March 12, 3:25 p.m. PDT: Clarified Aurasma's history.