Today, we are finding out about a new way to learn about and interact with our surrounding world: augmented reality.
But what is augmented reality exactly? We will attempt to explain what these words mean, see how the principles of augmented reality can be applied to the real world and discover how far engineers have gone to improve the way we perceive our environment.
Augmented reality is a catchy name given to what is technically called computer-mediated reality. It is the simplified name given to this approach and is often abbreviated as “AR”.
Computer-mediated reality is way to enrich our perceptions. Human senses are augmented with the addition of electronically processed information made available in different manners. The information is provided in a format that, by using a special reader, can be interpreted by one or more of our five senses, mainly sight. Without these external aids, we would have never been able to process this additional information simply because we cannot naturally perceive it.
In order to understand the meaning of “information enrichment” we can mention some of the devices that can supply you with a non-stop stream of information already today: the dashboard of your car, that shows speed, fuel consumption and temperature, a smartphone, a tablet or a computer, that offers you the opportunity to take a virtual tour of a city or a museum, or a complex remote robotic surgery system.
Augmented reality may sound like something very futuristic, but in actual fact the first references to this science date back to 1940 when the possibility of reading data and information on a superimposed screen was envisaged for the first time. The theory was very evolved for its day and started to become reality towards the end of the 1980s.
That was the decade of the development of electronics and the wide-scale diffusion of advanced technologies. The arrival of the Internet, of miniaturised electronics, wearable devices and geopositioning opened the way to virtual worlds which could be enriched and processed electronically.
These technologies became mature during the first years of the new millennium and the innovation was disseminated with the introduction of products of common use, some of which are already in our homes, and others which are less common, but not entirely out of reach: mobile devices, smartphones, PCs, Oculus Rift, webcams, virtual retinal display using special eyewear, innovative audio devices, such as earphones, possibility of interacting using gloves and digital applications.
It is clear that special gadgets are needed to be able to enjoy an interactive AR experience. An extremely simplified working model of this system would require a camera and a computer program. The program controls the camera (a video or photo camera) that is framing the environment. The program recognises the objects and shows virtual information contents with a variable degree of detail. A situation like this, formed by reality and the additional information, is called mixed reality.
Today, you can don Microsoft HoloLens, which are special high-tech glasses, to see holographic projections in the world. With the glasses, you can see additional virtual elements in the surrounding environment. The technology can be applied to a wide range of applications, from the very serious and professional to video games.
We used the word "virtual" not by chance. Augmented reality must not be confused with virtual reality. In virtual reality, you are immersed in circumstances and situations in which the natural perceptions of the five senses are nearly always missing. In augmented reality, instead, perceptions are all brought to life. You can live your physical reality as you normally would but with added information on the situation you are actually experiencing.
A very common example of augmented reality is that of a smartphone. Technological developments mean that the masses have been given a powerful communication tool and, by using dedicated applications, can obtain information in real time that only a few years ago would have been much more complicated to gather: news on hotels, restaurants and travel timetables, for instance. We can share images and opinions immediately on social networks, obtain descriptions and explanations on any topic and visit a city simply by playing. Not long ago, we needed guidebooks or info points to find our way, we used to organise get-togethers to exchange holiday pics and we had to browse the encyclopaedia to clarify a doubt; now, there is a solution for everything and the word for it has become a part of our daily jargon: "app". There are apps for hotels and apps for restaurants. There are apps for weather updates, apps for cultural information, apps for sharing photos and videos.
All this ease of obtaining information has a downside: privacy. These systems are often used without thinking and make available a huge amount of information which can be used with malicious intent. An example of this is the diffusion of a simple app which can be used to search user profiles on the most popular social media simply by scanning a photograph and consequently reveal a great deal of personal details in a simple step.
Augmented reality can be divided into two main branches:
• Augmented reality on mobile devices which must be provided with GPS and Internet to use a positioning system and access real-time data streams. The phone camera is used to frame your surroundings, the geopositioning system locates where you are and adds descriptive levels to your images following pre-established points of interest (POI).
• Augmented reality on computer envisages the use of markers, called ARtags, which are recognised by the webcam and over which multimedia content is superimposed. By means of Adobe Flash based applications, these markers can be used to show video, play audio or view 3D object projections.
After smartphones, augmented reality has shown great potential with the first interactive lens prototypes, some of which never released like Google Glasses because they were obsolete even before their launch. Which leads us to a new field which still remains to be explored: that of cars.
Technological developments in the automotive world are very promising grounds for augmented reality. Car manufacturers are already working on it and have prepared many prototypes as launch vehicles of these developments.
Honda, Toyota, General Motors, Lamborghini, BMW and Audi have already presented smart car prototypes and explained the new technologies implemented in their software.
So, what does being able to use augmented reality on a car actually mean?
This new technology will provide a brand-new experience for the driver and passengers. It will be an innovative way to drive and travel in a car.
The windscreen will become the additional information level and used as interactive display. Information of various nature will be projected onto the windscreen. The size used to display the information depends on its importance and is determined on a case-by-case basis.
Information includes car-specific indications, such as speed, temperature and driving route; in this, the system is a major development of today's satellite navigation systems with the addition of historical or architectural information on places and buildings. It can include curious facts on sights, exhibitions, shows and events, weather information, temperature and forecasts, latest news from the web and social network updates, phone calls, reading text messages and much more. All information will be acquired very rapidly.
Obviously, this technology was not patented only for games.
Augmented reality can be very useful to perceive information on potential dangers on the road ahead.
A system of sensors and cameras arranged around the car are used to project information on obstacles in the immediate surroundings, indicate speed limits and hazards along the road, such as animals or children who could cross without notice. Some programs are designed to detect particular weather conditions and project horizontal road signs onto the windscreen in case of low visibility caused by fog, heavy rain or snow.
Interesting news is coming from Japan. Japanese engineers are working on projects which allow passengers to zoom into objects along the road and obtain information on anything. Objects, animals, plants, places or buildings will have no secrets. The image will be enlarged and we will benefit from interesting information on it in real time. These systems will be particularly appreciated by children who tend to get bored on long trips. In this way, they can play and interact with the surrounding environment.
Another study which is being defined is called X-Ray View: it is a video and light system that makes all car components transparent. Images cleverly projected on mirrors give driver and passengers the sensation of floating in mid-air observing the surrounding environment as if there were no car body or seats.
With this enrichment of the human-machine interaction, the world of cars could progress by leaps and bounds and blend man, machine, the environment and technology for even more comfortable driving experiences. Cars enriched with augmented reality will foster nothing short of a revolution in the sector.
Our cars today are already enriched with comforts – such as navigator, on-board instruments, audio and video components – but tomorrow we will have smart cars with which we will be able to communicate and interact. It will not difficult to imagine the situation in which you will tell your car where to do, sit back comfortably and enjoy the ride. During the trip, you be able to learn about the surrounding environment exploiting the possibility of acquiring information on any building, place or object by navigating online. Access to immediately available multimedia contents will translate into very relaxing trips without needing to worry about driving.
Your car will watch the road, evaluate the risks and think about safety. Science-fiction? Much less than you would think.
The potentials of AR is truly considerable and applications span across very many different fields; many developers are working on new areas. Everything is being discussed and the studies are receiving very positive feedback.
Augmented reality will also make it possible to expand horizons and develop new marketing systems. For instance, augmented reality is being implemented in a special app that will revolutionise the way you buy a car. A mobile device will be able to reproduce a virtual vehicle in 3D showing it on the screen. This virtual vehicle will be full size and you will be able to explore its smallest details simply by moving the device: you will be able to open the doors, access the sound system, view the rims, see the various tyre models and walk about the car. The car can be customised and viewed in an instant. Very remarkable indeed.