AR Hype Cycle

A great bit of work from SPRX Mobile has come to my attention:

Man, I’m looking forward to the Slope of Enlightenment!

However, I reckon we’re already at the Peak of Inflated Expectations, due a worldwide crash into the Trough of Dissillusionment within the next six months.

Thoughts?

Virtual Reality

AR is considered by some to be a logical progression of VR technologies (Liarokapis, 2006; Botella, 2005; Reitmayr & Schmalstieg, 2001), a more appropriate way to interact with information in real-time that has been granted only by recent innovations. Thus, one could consider that a full historical appraisal would pertain to VR’s own history, plus the last few years of AR developments. Though this method would certainly work for much of Wearable AR- which uses a similar device array- the same could not be said for Mobile AR, since by its nature it offers a set of properties from a wholly different paradigm: portability, connectivity and many years of mobile development exclusive of AR research come together in enhancing Mobile AR’s formal capabilities. Despite the obvious mass-market potential of this technology, most AR research continues to explore the Wearable AR paradigm. Where Mobile AR is cousin to VR, Wearable AR is sister. Most published works favour the Wearable AR approach, so if my assessment of Mobile AR is to be fair I cannot ignore its grounding in VR research.

As aforementioned, VR is the realm at the far right of my Mixed Reality Scale. To explore a Virtual Reality, users must wear a screen array on their heads that cloak the user’s vision with a wholly virtual world. These head-mounted-displays (HMD’s) serve to transpose the user into this virtual space whilst cutting them off from their physical environment:

A Virtual Reality HMD, two LCD screens occupy the wearer's field of vision
A Virtual Reality HMD, two LCD screens occupy the wearer's field of vision

The HMD’s must be connected to a wearable computer, a Ghostbusters-style device attached to the wearer’s back or waist that holds a CPU and graphics renderer. To interact with virtual objects, users must hold a joypad. Aside from being a lot to carry, this equipment is restrictive on the senses and is often expensive:

A Wearable Computer array, this particular array uses a CPU, GPS, HMD, graphics renderer, and human-interface-device
A Wearable Computer array, this particular array uses a CPU, GPS, HMD, graphics renderer, and human-interface-device

It is useful at this point to reference some thinkers in VR research, with the view to better understanding The Virtual realm and its implications for Mobile AR’s Mixed Reality approach. Writing on the different selves offered by various media, Lonsway (2002) states that:

“With the special case of the immersive VR experience, the user is (in actual fact) located in physical space within the apparatus of the technology. The computer-mediated environment suggests (in effect) a trans-location outside of this domain, but only through the construction of a subject centred on the self (I), controlling an abstract position in a graphic database of spatial coordinates. The individual, of which this newly positioned subject is but one component, is participant in a virtuality: a spatio-temporal moment of immersion, virtualised travel, physical fixity, and perhaps, depending on the technologies employed, electro-magnetic frequency exposure, lag-induced nausea, etc.”

Lonsway (2002: 65)

Despite its flaws, media representations of VR technologies throughout the eighties and early nineties such as Tron (Lisberger, 1982), Lawnmower Man (Leonard, 1992) and Johnny Mnemonic (Longo, 1995) generated plenty of audience interest and consequent industrial investment. VR hardware was produced in bulk for much of the early nineties, but it failed to become a mainstream technology largely due to a lack of capital investment in VR content, a function of the stagnant demand for expensive VR hardware (Mike Dicks of Bomb Productions: personal communication). The market for VR content collapsed, but the field remains an active contributor in certain key areas, with notable success as a commonplace training aid for military pilots (Baumann, date unknown) and as an academic tool for the study of player immersion and virtual identity (Lonsway, 2002).

Most AR development uses VR’s same array of devices: a wearable computer, input device and an HMD. The HMD is slightly different in these cases; it is transparent and contains an internal half-silvered mirror, which combines images from an LCD display with the user’s vision of the world:

An AR HMD, this model has a half-mirrored screen at 45 degrees. Above are two LCDs that reflect into the wearer's eyes whilst they can see what lies in front of them
An AR HMD, this model has a half-mirrored screen at 45 degrees. Above are two LCDs that reflect into the wearer's eyes whilst they can see what lies in front of them

 

What Wearable AR looks like, notice the very bright figure ahead. If he was darker he would not be visible
What Wearable AR looks like, notice the very bright figure ahead. If he was darker he would not be visible

There are still many limitations placed on the experience, however: first, the digital graphics must be very bright in order to stand out against natural light; second, they require the use of a cumbersome wearable computer array; third, this array is at a price-point too high for it to reach mainstream use. Much of the hardware used in Wearable AR research is bought wholesale from liquidized VR companies (Dave Mee of Gameware: personal communication), a fact representative of the backward thinking of much AR research.

In their work New Media and the Permanent Crisis of Aura Bolter et al. (2006) apply Benjamin’s work on the Aura to Mixed Reality technologies, and attempt to forge a link between VR and the Internet. This passage offers a perspective on the virtuality of the desktop computer and the World Wide Web:

“What we might call the paradigm of mixed reality is now competing successfully with what we might call ‘pure virtuality’ – the earlier paradigm that dominated interface design for decades.
In purely virtual applications, the computer defines the entire informational or perceptual environment for the user … The goal of VR is to immerse the user in a world of computer generated images and (often) computer-controlled sound. Although practical applications for VR are relatively limited, this technology still represents the next (and final?) logical step in the quest for pure virtuality. If VR were perfected and could replace the desktop GUI as the interface to an expanded World Wide Web, the result would be cyberspace.”

Bolter et al. (2006: 22)

This account offers a new platform for discussion useful for the analysis of the Internet as a component in Mobile AR: the idea that the Internet could exploit the spatial capabilities of a Virtual Reality to enhance its message. Bolter posits that this could be the logical end of a supposed “quest for pure virtuality”. I would argue that the reason VR did not succeed is the same reason that there is no “quest” to join: VR technologies lack the real-world applicability that we can easily find in reality-grounded media such as the Internet or mobile telephone.

The Subscription Options Plugin

My aim is to make my views on Digital Media, Branding and Emergent Technologies as accessible as possible not only to industry types, but to the blog-scouring early-adopting masses. My ongoing series on Augmented Reality has been relatively successful in boosting both the visitation and the subscribership of this blog.

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Gameware: A Case-Study in AR Development

I have been aided in this series by a connection with Gameware Development Limited, a Cambridge-based commercial enterprise working in the entertainment industry. Gameware was formed in May 2003 from Creature Labs Ltd, developing for the PC games market which produced the market leading game in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Creatures. When Gameware was formed, a strategic decision was made to move away from retail products and into the provision of technical services. They now work within the Broadcasting and Mobile Telephony space in addition to the traditional PC market. I use this business as a platform to launch into a discussion of the developments current and past that could see AR become a part of contemporary life, and just why AR is such a promising technology.

Gameware’s first explorations into AR came when they were commissioned by the BBC to develop an AR engine and software toolkit for a television show to be aired on the CBBC channel. The toolkit lets children build virtual creatures or zooks at home on their PCs which are uploaded back to the BBC and assessed:

 

A typical Zook, screenshot taken from Gameware's Zook Kit which lets children build virtual creatures
A typical Zook, screenshot taken from Gameware's Zook Kit which lets children build virtual creatures

 

The children with the best designs are then invited to the BAMZOOKi studio to have their virtual creatures compete against each other in a purpose-built arena comprised of real and digital elements. The zooks themselves are not real, of course, but the children can see silhouettes of digital action projected onto the arena in front of them. Each camera has an auxiliary camera pointed at AR markers on the studio ceiling, meaning each camera’s exact location in relation to the simulated events can be processed in real time. The digital creatures are stitched into the footage, and are then navigable and zoomable as if they were real studio elements. No post-production is necessary. BAMZOOKi is currently in its fourth series, with repeats aired daily:

 

BAMZOOKi, BBC's AR game show where children’s zooks compete in a studio environment
BAMZOOKi, BBC's AR game show where children’s zooks compete in a studio environment

 

BAMZOOKi has earned Childrens BBC some of its highest viewing figures (up to 1.2 million for the Monday shows on BBC1 and around 100,000 for each of the 20 episodes shown on digital Children’s BBC), which represents a massive milestone for AR and its emergence as a mainstream media technology. The evidence shows that there is a willing audience already receptive to contemporary AR applications. Further to the viewing figures the commercial arm of the BBC, BBC Worldwide, is in talks to distribute the BAMZOOKi format across the world, with its AR engine as its biggest USP. Gameware hold the rights required to further develop their BAMZOOKi intellectual property (IP), and are currently working on a stripped down version of their complex AR engine for the mobile telephony market.

I argue, however, that Broadcast AR is not the central application of AR technologies, merely an enabler for its wider applicability in other, more potent forms of media. Mobile AR offers a new channel of distribution for a variety of media forms, and it is its flexibility as a platform that could see it become a mainstream medium. Its successful deployment and reception is reliant on a number of cooperating factors; the innovation of its developers and the quality of the actual product being just part of the overall success the imminent release.

As well as their AR research, Gameware creates innovative digital games based on their Creatures AI engine. They recently produced Creebies; a digital game for Nokia Corp. Creebies is one of the first 3D games which incorporates AI for mobile phones. Gameware’s relationship with Nokia was strengthened when Nokia named them Pro-Developers. This is a title that grants Gameware a certain advantage: access to prototype mobile devices, hardware specifications, programming tools and their own Symbian operating system (Symbian OS) for mobile platforms. It was this development in combination with their experiences with BAMZOOKi and a long-standing collaboration with Cambridge University which has led to the idea for their HARVEE project. HARVEE stands for Handheld Augmented Reality Virtual Entertainment Engine.

Their product allows full 3D virtual objects to co-exist with real objects in physical space, viewed through the AR Device, which are animated, interactive and navigable, meaning the software can make changes to the objects as required, providing much space for interesting digital content. The applications of such a tool range from simple toy products; advertising outlets; tourist information or multiplayer game applications; to complex visualisations of weather movements; collaborating on engineering or architectural problems; or even implementing massive city-wide databases of knowledge where users might ‘tag’ buildings with their own graphical labels that might be useful to other AR users. There is rich potential here.

In HARVEE, Gameware attempt to surmount the limitations of current AR hardware in order to deliver the latest in interactive reality imaging to a new and potentially huge user base. Indeed, Nokia’s own market research suggests that AR-capable Smartphones will be owned by 25% of all consumers by 2009 (Nokia Research Centre Cambridge, non-public document). Mobile AR of the type HARVEE hopes to achieve represents not only a significant technical challenge, but also a potentially revolutionary step in mobile telephony technologies and the entertainment industry.

Gameware’s HARVEE project is essentially the creation of an SDK (Software Development Kit) which will allow developers to create content deliverable via their own Mobile AR applications. The SDK is written with the developer in mind, and does the difficult work of augmenting images and information related to the content. This simple yet flexible approach opens up a space for various types of AR content created at low cost for developers and end-users. I see Mobile AR’s visibility on the open market the only impediment to its success, and I believe that its simplicity of concept could see it become a participatory mass-medium of user-generated and mainstream commercial content.

What is AR and What is it Capable Of?

Presently, most AR research is concerned with live video imagery and it’s processing, which allows the addition of live-rendered 3D digital images. This new augmented reality is viewable through a suitably equipped device, which incorporates a camera, a screen and a CPU capable of running specially developed software. This software is written by specialist software programmers, with knowledge of optics, 3D-image rendering, screen design and human interfaces. The work is time consuming and difficult, but since there is little competition in this field, the rare breakthroughs that do occur are as a result of capital investment: something not willingly given to developers of such a nascent technology.

What is exciting about AR research is that once the work is done, its potential is immediately seen, since in essence it is a very simple concept. All that is required from the user is their AR device and a real world target. The target is an object in the real world environment that the software is trained to identify. Typically, these are specially designed black and white cards known as markers:

An AR marker, this one relates to a 3D model of Doctor Who's Tardis in Gameware's HARVEE kit
An AR marker, this one relates to a 3D model of Doctor Who's Tardis in Gameware's HARVEE kit

These assist the recognition software in judging viewing altitude, distance and angle. Upon identification of a marker, the software will project or superimpose a virtual object or graphical overlay above the target, which becomes viewable on the screen of the AR device. As the device moves, the digital object orients in relation to the target in real-time:

armarker2
Augmented Reality in action, multiple markers in use on the HARVEE system on a Nokia N73

The goal of some AR research is to free devices from markers, to teach AR devices to make judgements about spatial movements without fixed reference points. This is the cutting edge of AR research: markerless tracking. Most contemporary research, however, uses either marker-based or GPS information to process an environment.

Marker-based tracking is suited to local AR on a small scale, such as the Invisible Train Project (Wagner et al., 2005) in which players collaboratively keep virtual trains from colliding on a real world toy train track, making changes using their touch-screen handheld computers:

crw_80271
The Invisible Train Project (Wagner et al., 2005)

GPS tracking is best applied to large scale AR projects, such as ARQuake (Thomas et al, 2000), which exploits a scale virtual model of the University of Adelaide and a modified Quake engine to place on-campus players into a ‘first-person-shooter’. This application employs use of a headset, wearable computer, and a digital compass, which offer the effect that enemies appear to walk the corridors and ‘hide’ around corners. Players shoot with a motion-sensing arcade gun, but the overall effect is quite crude:

100-0007_img_21
ARQuake (Thomas et al, 2000)

More data input would make the game run smoother and would provide a more immersive player experience. The best applications of AR will exploit multiple data inputs, so that large-scale applications might have the precision of marker-based applications whilst remaining location-aware.

Readers of this blog will be aware that AR’s flexibility as a platform lends applicability to a huge range of fields:

  • Current academic work uses AR to treat neurological conditions: AR-enabled projections have successfully cured cockroach phobia in some patients (Botella et al., 2005);
  • There are a wide range of civic and architectural uses: Roberts et al. (2002) have developed AR software that enables engineers to observe the locations of underground pipes and wires in situ, without the need schematics
  • AR offers a potentially rich resource to the tourism industry: the Virtuoso project (Wagner et al., 2005) is a handheld computer program that guides visitors around an AR enabled gallery, providing additional aural and visual information suited to each artefact;

The first commercial work in the AR space was far more playful, however: AR development in media presentations for television has led to such primetime projects as Time Commanders (Lion TV for BBC2, 2003-2005) in which contestants oversee an AR-enabled battlefield, and strategise to defeat the opposing army, and FightBox (Bomb Productions for BBC2, 2003) in which players build avatars to compete in an AR ‘beat-em-up’ that is filmed in front of a live audience; T-Immersion (2003- ) produce interactive visual installations for theme parks and trade expositions; other work is much more simple, in one case the BBC commissioned an AR remote-control virtual Dalek meant for mobile phones, due for free download from BBC Online:

A Dalek, screenshot taken from HARVEE's development platform (work in progress)
A Dalek, screenshot taken from HARVEE's development platform (work in progress)

The next entry in this series is a case study in AR development. If you haven’t already done so, please follow me on Twitter or grab an RSS feed to be alerted when my series continues.