Digital & Technology

Augmented Reality: Living in a Virtual World

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For some years now, all the technology sector has heard about is the (eventual) coming of virtual reality. Then, out of nowhere, the focus changed. It's not virtual reality that's on its way down the pipeline — it's augmented reality.

Before Google ploughed millions into the latest funding round of secretive augmented reality (AR) firm Magic Leap, before Microsoft unveiled HoloLens, no one outside the AR sector really knew much about what it is, and can be, capable of.

“When I first started my company and started talking to VCs, they just said, 'What are you talking about?'" said InfinityAR CEO Motti Kushnir. “Last year, after Microsoft introduced HoloLens, suddenly everyone got it."

Kushnir founded Playground AR with now-CTO of InfinityAR, Dr Mattan Protter, in 2013. It merged into InfinityAR the following year when the firm acquired Playground's intellectual property. The company plans to launch a beta version of its AR platform at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. The platform uses simple stereoscopic cameras to create 3D scene representations that can then be interacted with using natural hand movements.

It's the sort of software that's familiar to anyone who's seen the 2008 film Iron Man, where Robert Downey Jr assembles the Iron Man suit using a 3D holographic blueprint he can manipulate. But in the short seven years since then, this sort of science fiction is very close to science fact.

While InfinityAR's technology is not yet on the market, AR is already being used by companies today. German multinational SAP has already staked a claim in AR for logistics. Using a combination of AR software and smart glasses, the firm has eliminated the need for handheld scanners in warehouse operations, a hands-free solution that allows pickers to just carry the object they want. The benefits in speed, efficiency, and cost are obvious, with workers freed from juggling scanners and endless menu choices, and so able to work faster with fewer mistakes.

“Warehouse picking, and service and repair processes, were chosen as the ideal processes where workers would most benefit from these new technologies because workers are always 'mobile' and need information while working with both hands," explained Uwe Pfisterer, product manager of mobile solutions, wearables, and augmented reality for SAP.

The industrial use cases for AR have seen its introduction in industries like oil and gas, and engineering and manufacturing — anywhere employees have to carry cumbersome manuals or tablet computers with them, while also trying to work with their hands, for example, while repairing equipment.

But AR also has obvious potential in areas like medicine and retail. Microsoft has already showcased HoloLens' potential to help medical staff see inside the human body. In partnership with Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, the firm is using its HoloLens helmet to help transform how students learn human anatomy.

The extensions to this kind of AR are obvious — imagine a doctor who's able to look at, rotate, and review a 3D model of your damaged heart both before and during the surgery to repair it.

In the UK, retailer John Lewis is already trialling potential applications of AR, using tablets to display its entire range of furniture in a small space.

“In our flagship Oxford Street, we showcased the full range of dining chairs, which would usually take up a huge amount of space," explained innovation manager John Vary. “But in using this AR solution, we could do it at one dining table, going through the whole range and also changing the colour of the table [for customers]."

A second trial of the technology is due to start in the furniture department of John Lewis' Cambridge branch soon, running for four months. Vary hopes to analyse how customers interact with the technology — are they physically moving forward for a closer look, for example, and could that be incorporated into the technology? Eventually, he imagines AR solutions like these could be something customers could do at home as well.

“How it's currently working is looking at a set table in a store. In your home, you could use it to see if things fit in the context of your room and what they would look like," he said.

The virtual reality (VR) world has appeared to be focused on consumer applications, perhaps because of the media popularity of promised products like Oculus Rift. But AR is something that's coming to industrial and enterprise settings first, according to both InfinityAR's Kushnir and SAP's Pfisterer.

“In the coming two years, we expect mainly industrial and enterprise use cases," said Kushnir.

“Consumers will probably come around 2018, starting with games. Think of what we could do with board games — instead of an ordinary chess game, you could have wizard chess like Harry Potter! Or with Monopoly, you see the city and when you build a hotel or a house, you see the physical house and when you go to jail, you see the jail."

Kushnir in particular believes not only that AR is right around the corner, but that it will become a technology that's every bit as ubiquitous as computers, tablets, and smartphones, with the potential to replace them all.

“Eventually — it's not a question of if, it's only a question of when — this will be the next computing system. You're no longer constrained to a small 2D field of a screen, but rather you can augment whatever you want," he said.

“AR is going to be the first time when mankind can truly blend virtual content into day-to-day life. If I'm going to play a virtual chess game with my son, we'll have the virtual experience, but still we'll be playing each other, with normal human interaction, and if his mum calls him, he can turn his head and answer her and the virtual chess game will stay on the table."

A simplified user interface that works on the physical world and can provide any contextual information needed, turning the world into a computer and any surface into a keyboard if it's needed, that's the AR dream. And with existing AR technologies already proving their ROI worth to enterprises, the funding will be there to help make it happen.