Augmented reality is an interactive experience where virtual components are dynamically merged into a live video stream in real time. It’s a little mind-boggling when you think about it, but to see it is to understand completely just how delightful it can be! Google and Microsoft have both staked claims in the augmented reality space, by using their satellite maps of the planet and enabling 3D renderings of objects to be overlaid on them for a semi-realistic 3D experience. Now enters the French company Total Immersion, with their D’Fusion product. Every time you watched the Star Trek crew project a 3D hologram of a person with an important message, and thought “Wow!”, you probably wondered when, if ever, you would really see something like that. Well, I can only say, watch this video! You keep expecting Princess Leia to emerge and say, “Help us, Obi-wan! You are our only hope!”
Not just the sizzle, but the steak!
This demonstration will leave you scratching your head and wondering “How did they do that?”. Especially when you discover that their software will allow you to create your own versions at home using only a videocam and a personal computer! This is pretty exciting technology, I think, and it raises the bar for large corporate presentations. Remember only a few years back when all the big corporations used projections of an outlined animated head on a screen with moving lips, and the character would chat back and forth with the presenter? Or Mike the Talking Head? Well, D’Fusion blows that away. Imagine your executives presenting annual results by holding the graph in their hands, then placing it on a table, or demonstrating a new product or process! Or using it to put 3D products into a cell phone display. It’s pretty compelling, and definitely has the wow factor!
Total Immersion created an augmented reality experience for a permanent gallery called “My Digital World,” which opened in September at the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix, Arizona. In “The Augmented Reality Puzzle,” a guest is given three cards, each corresponding to a three-dimensional cube puzzle piece. Arranging the cubes in the correct order results in a full view of the puzzle with 3D fireworks exploding all around. Graspable interfaces and holowalls have been around since the mid-1990s, but with the rapid increases in computing power and miniaturization, it is now possible to do things on a desktop that we have always considered movie special effects.
The fun is just beginning
It’s not a stretch to imagine aerospace or automotive companies using D’Fusion to model their products in 3D. They are doing it. Or to have a kiosk where a customer can create a customized pair of athletic shoes, and then project their own face onto a 3D avatar that can dance wearing the newly created shoes. (Total Immersion has such a kiosk now) Here’s another video that shows some more practical potentialities.
One important aspect of augmented reality is understanding context. Our environments are full of information, but most of this information isn’t digitized. As we increasingly use smart devices that connect to the Web, and as we introduce sensors such as RFID (and teens with camera phones) into our environments, there will be much more information for us to work with and use to contextualize. The Web is becoming something that is all around us, rather than something just inside the computer screen, and augmented reality will make it easier to understand and visualize all this information appropriately. Imagine that it will be like seeing the world around you as the Terminator or Six Million Dollar Man might see it.
An example of a different type of augmented reality is Enkin, a light navigation system for mobile devices. Enkin displays location-based content that bridges the gap between reality and classic map-like representations. It combines GPS, orientation sensors, 3D graphics, live video, several web services, and a user interface. You can use the application to identify locations, for example on Google Maps, and then have the labels show up on objects in the real world when you pan them with the device.
Microsoft’s prototype for an augmented reality system is known as “Play Anywhere”. The Play Anywhere system is a touch-surface table that combines a video projector and a sensing device to detect a user’s gestures and the positions of objects placed on a surface in real time. The result is a realistic sense of manipulating 3D objects on a flat surface. Other technologies offering similar concepts are ReacTIVision and SurfaceFusion.
Doctors are using 3D technology for training in exacting surgeries, and with a 3D product like D’Fusion, it’s possible to see a model of an open skull and brain emerge in front of you and rotate, or something as small as a strand of DNA. One exciting application of these technologies may be for visually impaired users. Cell phones with mobile NFC sensing can offer touch-and-listen or point-and-feel options, two-way RFID and location-and-ID information exchanges presented in a format that is understandable by people with disabilities. It’s another very interesting time for emerging technology!