Virtual Reality promised much and delivered little. As a result the ‘virtual’ prefix has become a bit of a millstone for many technologies. With all the hype around Augmented Reality Martyn Day wonders if it will suffer the same fate?
I am old enough to remember all the original hype surrounding Virtual Reality (VR) and have memories of dark rooms, immersive headsets and gloves with enough cables to double as a walking telephone exchange. Virtual it was. Reality? Well perhaps if you lived on a planet entirely filled with flat shaded prismatic shapes. Thankfully I live in Oxford.
The most realistic virtual environments you can currently experience reside in games and that pretty much sums up the kind of person that got the most excited about VR in the first place — fantasists, whose lives are so dull they need a Second Life Avatar or a trip back in time to shoot their fair share of Nazis. While the ultimate VR experiences certainly capture the playfully minded, the key residual for engineers has been the evolution of existing design systems to model ‘virtual products’ in 3D CAD, so they may be tested with simulation and analysis tools. These can also be rendered for product brochures or videos, which saves time and money in removing the reliance on prototypes and ultimately producing higher quality products. All very practical, but not very sci-fi.
With the original vision of VR now deemed passé, there is a new ‘reality’ phrase doing the rounds in technology circles — that of Augmented Reality (AR). AR is defined as a live view of the real world, which is merged with contextual computer-generated information or geometry, all in real-time.
As with VR, the first users of AR were the military, which deployed AR technology in Heads Up Displays (HUDs) for fighter jets and helicopters, projecting the navigation and systems status onto the visors of the pilot’s helmet. In some systems targets can even be assigned by tracking the retina of the pilot’s eyes. Technology such as this is now creeping into high-end car design with speed and ‘sat nav’ information being projected onto the windscreen. And with tiny laser projector technology, there are even real-time 3D holographic systems coming online.
Applications for AR
While you may still be wondering why you would want your reality augmented, unlike VR, AR does actually have an array of convincing real-world commercial applications that are available for use now.
It is already possible to render 3D geometry onto the video view of a mobile phone or link metadata to real world objects. Probably the most interesting vision of this has been provided by Google, with its Google Goggles labs experiment. This allows the web to be searched using pictures from camera phones. The software can recognise landmarks, artwork, places, wine labels, logos and connect that with GPS and video information. For example, you could switch on your phone’s camera and point it at the Golden Gate Bridge. The software will recognise the landmark, pull associated information of the structure and display it live on your camera. Future applications include taking a photo of a chess game to get some help with the next move or taking the picture of a leaf to find out what plant it is from.
While this sounds space age, there are applications available now for AR on Apple’s iPhone. For instance Theodolite provides a live in Theodolite read out to the camera view and can be used to measure heights and elevations. Another application, Le Bar from Stella Artois, will add pub information to the live camera view. There is an application to locate your nearest tube stop, Pocket Universe for live astronomy information and ‘car finder’, which directs you back to your car, should you have remembered to tell your iPhone where you parked it. A lot of these may be considered gimmicks but the technology is still very interesting.
Beyond the many applications for lost tourists, engineering developers are also looking to provide professional applications for AR. No longer will design information need to reside in database silos. Autodesk is already working on linking underground pipework to Google Maps, allowing onsite engineers to use mobile devices to ‘see through’ the ground and locate buried pipework. Architects could use AR to project building models into the live video of sites and engineers could use cameras on mobile devices to recognise installed equipment, and automatically bring up service manuals.
While VR was all about modelling everything, including the virtual world, AR makes much more sense — just overlay the 3D model, or related information to the real world. With the advent of Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), all the lifecycle attribute information will also be available online – so parts of assemblies could be identified by photo and disassembly videos relayed or new parts ordered. This is a true convergence of technologies and capabilities and will make us all look at the Internet in a completely different light. The technology could also be enhanced using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, linking back to assembly Bill of Materials (BOMs) at head office. The potential for AR usage is nothing less than huge.
As with most technologies, the consumer demand for AR will drive companies like Google to further map out the world and build connections and links to rich databases of existing digital products and projects. As masters of the 3D digital landscape and content, engineers, architects, civil engineers and cartographers will, in turn, benefit from this hybrid of Internet, GPS, live video and digital asset information for many different reasons. Convergence is no longer just an industry mantra, it is a reality.