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Augmented Reality—The Next Big Idea

Kshitij Varshney | IE-E&C

Imagine bubbles floating before your eyes, filled with new information about things you see on the street. Science fiction? No. What we are dealing with in the twenty-first century is Augmented Reality and, one day, it will be as routine as browsing the World Wide Web.

Technology is like our mood; it changes even before we realise it. Video games have been entertaining us for nearly 30 years – we have grown up seeing this technology develop. Graphics generated then are nothing compared to what we see now and are pushing the barriers of photorealism. One such technology which manipulates real-time scenarios is ‘Augmented Reality’. Simply put, it enhances the real-world environment by the addition of virtual images generated by a computer. Haven’t television networks been doing that with graphics for decades? You may have come across this question multiple times. The truth is, augmented reality is more advanced than any technology we have seen on television. This technology blurs the line between reality and computer-generated environments by enhancing what we see, hear, feel, and smell.

Courtesy: IE-E&C

From an algorithmic standpoint, the field is divided into two major areas:

  1. Marker-based: The computer processes artificial markers in the real world environment (For example: Barcodes, QR codes)
  2. Positional-based: It is based on where you are located and the objects of interest that are relative to you. The computer then superimposes its images on top of the real-world images gathered. The computer doesn’t need to do much image processing; except for superimposing the generated image on top of the camera image.

The type of ‘reality’ you are most likely to encounter uses a wide range of sensors, computer components, and display devices to create the illusion of virtual objects in the real world. Thanks to the popularity of smartphones having all the necessary components, they are the primary and most commercial example of how augmented reality can be used.

Pokemon Go is one application of Augmented Reality and Geo-fencing for satisfactory game-play. Geo-fencing is essentially a feature that uses the Global Positioning System (GPS) or radio frequency identification (RFID) to define geographical boundaries.

The Online Sensation- Pokemon | Courtesy: IE-E&C

The device looks for a target and the Augmented Reality application recognises it via the camera, processes the image and augments it with pictures and sound. For example, you may see a movie poster spring to life and play a trailer for the film. Now, as long as you look at the poster through the ‘window’ of the display, you can see the augmented version of a real scenario. By using smart algorithms, the device can keep the augmented elements aligned with the image of the real world.

Using a smartphone or tablet computer as a ‘magic window’ into the augmented world is one way we can relay this digital information to our eyes. But, there are many other ways to achieve this. Digital imagery can be directly projected onto physical objects. This is known as projection mapping and can be used for a striking effect. For example, the Dyadic Mano-a-Mano uses projectors and Microsoft Kinect sensors to provide the user with 3D digital imagery projected directly onto the environment. The user doesn’t need to wear equipment or use any device.

Augmented Reality in Everyday Life | Courtesy: IE-E&C

The two fields having maximum commercial development are education and gaming. The two biggest mainstream video game consoles- the X-box and Playstation, have included augmented reality capabilities for the last two generations. When you face both the camera and the screen, these implementations are more like augmented reality mirrors. You can see yourself ‘in’ the game and can interact with game characters that seem to be in the same room as you. Identifying the potential for augmented reality in education is simple. It is implemented in fields such as medicine where students can benefit from live 3D models. It is possible to use existing learning material (such as pages from a textbook) as targets for augmented reality.

Bringing a Textbook to Life | Courtesy: IE-E&C

When viewed through the lens of a smartphone, you can see the picture of an engine animate in an engineering book or a working 3D model of a beating heart that you can rotate by hand. In medicine, augmented reality can project information directly onto the body of a patient. For example, the ‘Vein Viewer System’ projects a real-time image of infra-red scans directly onto the patient’s skin. This allows the clinician to ‘see’ the veins directly. The uses in the military are also quite clear since soldiers wearing heads-up displays (HUDs) can see information tagged onto objects in the real world. Radar information, orders, or any other relevant sensor data can be obtained from devices on the network.

Mobile phones, especially the iPhone, use augmented reality applications which allow you to view computer-generated images that have been superimposed over the real world ones. An example of this is an application which helps you to find a restaurant; it does so by displaying restaurant signs/logos as you move in a particular direction.

Augmented reality is likely to worm its way into our daily lives. Nothing is stopping you from experiencing an augmented reality for yourself today. Just hop onto your smart phone’s App Store and search for ‘AR’ applications. Once wearable computers become more familiar, it won’t be strange to see people interacting and reacting to things that don’t really exist. The way we work with computing devices and think about the divide between digital and analogue reality are likely to change fundamentally, forever.

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