Augmented Reality: Does reality need our help?

A predominant theme during SIGGRAPH ’04 was Augmented Reality (AR). Reality is hard, Virtual Reality (VR) is harder. AR is to the present decade as VR was for the previous. It is at once an escapist’s manna from heaven and a black hole for research dollars. Imagine being able to see around the corner, being able to project your opinions onto static objects, being able to tag and track everyone and everything you see. AR is the answer to the disappointments of VR.

During the course of numerous Sketches and Courses during SIGGRAPH, it became clear that there is much to be done in this area. The present state of the art in AR is head mounted displays that look like oversized motorcycle helmets, flickering and jarring low resolution displays, pretentiously witty text projected onto bananas for making amusing five second video clips. But the premise with which AR (and VR) operates is that reality is boring, it is something we see everyday, it is something we live in, we need to somehow make it more exciting, reality sucks, it needs our help.

Virtual Reality failed to deliver its promise of completely replacing reality. AR attempts only to supplement it. It blends the real and the virtual in a real environment, it is real-time interactive, it is 3D. For some, it is augmented virtuality. It is a way of adding virtual content to live sports broadcasts, it is a way of giving “X-ray vision” for surgeons, and it can be used to give instructions for assembly, maintenance and repair of complex machines. It can be used to extend your memory, used for education, in aircraft displays and if you watch American football, then you are already a victim of AR abuse.

Augmented reality involves the overlay of virtual images on the real world. As computers become more and more invisible, it is becoming an increasingly important application area for computer graphics and user-interface design. There are open-source tool-kits that can be downloaded off the web and used to build AR applications. The ARToolKit is one such open-source library.

Reality can be augmented in various forms. The Augmented Reality Sketch demoed different approaches to AR. One was an interaction technique for navigating large web pages in which the user drags a physical display device over a hard surface rather than the virtual surface itself. Like holding a magnifying glass over an invisible sheet of large, printed paper. Another was to use AR in an industrial setting where data was projected onto a holographic optical element that eliminates the need for the user to wear any equipment.

Why stop at vision when you can manipulate, sorry, augment smell? The Sketch on Mixed-Reality Applications demoed a system called Fragra, a “Visual-Olfactory VR Game”. It is a VR game that enables users to explore the interactive relationship between smelling and seeing. Users are shown a fruit, and a scent producing device that is strapped to the hand is used to produce the smell of a fruit that need not necessarily be the same as the one shown. The user has to say if the two match. Of the games on show in SIGGRAPH, this one must have been the lamest.

One cannot live with a diet comprised solely of fruit. A healthful diet needs vegetables. We can now grow them on books. The Keio University presented “Veggie Diaries: Urban Mobile MR Entertainment” where users can grow vegetables onto diaries using camera-mounted PDAs. With real-estate becoming more and more expensive in cities, this could be the only way future generations can experience the joys of gardening.

The AR technology right now is analogous to the 320x240 video displays of the past. It can only get better. Its potential to improve the fields of game play, medical diagnostics and industrial engineering is staggering.







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Last updated 8/10/04.

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Live coverage of SIGGRAPH made possible by the generous loan of cf Cybershot digital cameras from SONY, and laptop computers from NCSA.