Video games have been entertaining us for nearly 30 years, ever since Pong was introduced to arcades in the early 1970s. Computer graphics have become much more sophisticated since then, and game graphics are pushing the barriers of photorealism. Now, researchers and engineers are pulling graphics out of your television screen or computer display and integrating them into real-world environments. This new technology, called augmented reality, blurs the line between what’s real and what’s computer-generated by enhancing what we see, hear, feel and smell.
On the spectrum between virtual reality, which creates immersive, computer-generated environments, and the real world, augmented reality is closer to the real world. Augmented reality adds graphics, sounds, haptic feedback and smell to the natural world as it exists. Both video games and cell phones are driving the development of augmented reality. Everyone from tourists, to soldiers, to someone looking for the closest subway stop can now benefit from the ability to place computer-generated graphics in their field of vision.
Augmented reality is changing the way we view the world — or at least the way its users see the world. Picture yourself walking or driving down the street. With augmented-reality displays, which will eventually look much like a normal pair of glasses, informative graphics will appear in your field of view, and audio will coincide with whatever you see. These enhancements will be refreshed continually to reflect the movements of your head. Similar devices and applications already exist, particularly on smartphones like the iPhone.
The basic idea of augmented reality is to superimpose graphics, audio and other sensory enhancements over a real-world environment in real time. Sounds pretty simple. Besides, haven’t television networks been doing that with graphics for decades? However, augmented reality is more advanced than any technology you’ve seen in television broadcasts, although some new TV effects come close, such as RACEf/x and the super-imposed first down line on televised U.S. football games, both created by Sportvision. But these systems display graphics for only one point of view. Next-generation augmented-reality systems will display graphics for each viewer’s perspective.
Some of the most exciting augmented-reality work is taking place in research labs at universities around the world. In February 2009, at the TED conference, Pattie Maes and Pranav Mistry presented their augmented-reality system, which they developed as part of MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces Group. They call it SixthSense, and it relies on some basic components that are found in many augmented reality systems:
- Small projector
These components are strung together in a lanyardlike apparatus that the user wears around his neck. The user also wears four colored caps on the fingers, and these caps are used to manipulate the images that the projector emits.
SixthSense is remarkable because it uses these simple, off-the-shelf components that cost around $350. It is also notable because the projector essentially turns any surface into an interactive screen. Essentially, the device works by using the camera and mirror to examine the surrounding world, feeding that image to the phone (which processes the image, gathers GPS coordinates and pulls data from the Internet), and then projecting information from the projector onto the surface in front of the user, whether it’s a wrist, a wall, or even a person. Because the user is wearing the camera on his chest, SixthSense will augment whatever he looks at; for example, if he picks up a can of soup in a grocery store, SixthSense can find and project onto the soup information about its ingredients, price, nutritional value — even customer reviews.
By using his capped fingers — Pattie Maes says even fingers with different colors of nail polish would work — a user can perform actions on the projected information, which are then picked up by the camera and processed by the phone. If he wants to know more about that can of soup than is projected on it, he can use his fingers to interact with the projected image and learn about, say, competing brands. SixthSense can also recognize complex gestures — draw a circle on your wrist and SixthSense projects a watch with the current time.