Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Augmented Reality

Reality, like truth, has many different versions. Anyone who has watched the Matrix movies knows what I mean. Anyone who has ever watched "reality television" should also know how far from reality that is.

But there's an emerging technology term called "augmented reality," or AR. Here's how it works.

Computers have now become adept at taking pictures and video. We've all seen them draw maps and give directions. With GPS technology, computers know where they are. Their connection to the Internet means they have the full power of the knowledge on the Web at their fingertips. So what's needed is to tie this all together.

Augmented reality can do this.

In the examples I've seen of AR, it starts with a picture, typically a live picture. The computer will then use GPS or other location sensing technologies to figure out where it is. By using image recognition, the computer can try to determine what it's seeing, whether this be a building, a sign, a monument, or something else.

Tying all of these aspects together, the computer gets a pretty good idea of where you are and what it's seeing.

Then comes the interesting part: Helping you do something.

Say you are in Manhattan and want to get to Grand Central Terminal. Using a handheld device with AR, you can hold it up and point it at the world around you. It will then be able to tell you how to get to a subway entrance or which bus to take and where to wait for it.

If you're on vacation, AR can help you locate landmarks you'd like to see as well as provide you background information on what you're seeing.

The augmenting of reality comes into play by having the computer overlay text and/or graphics on top of the images the camera is displaying. Sometimes these augmented items just provide visual cues or they might provide additional information if you touch them. As you move the device around, the overlay information scrolls with the image. New information appears as parts of the image appear and old information disappears as the image leaves the screen.

In many ways, AR is similar to a "heads up" display that was originally used for military applications and has appeared on some high-end automobiles. Typical AR applications are being seen as iPhone or other handheld device applications, thereby reducing the cost of adoption from millions of dollars to a few dollars.

To see some examples of augmented reality, follow these links:


AR is, of course, still an emerging technology. There are plenty of challenges with the technology, such as things that move, databases that are inaccurate, image recognition that doesn't work as well as we'd like, and a lack of applications.

However, the fact that it's possible for all of these data sources to be brought together in a way that consumers can easily use bodes well for AR's adoption. The ease with which people can develop applications for handheld devices such as the iPhone will also continue to drive adoption and innovation.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 30 September 2009.
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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

3-D is Coming

The fact that we have two eyes on the front of our heads means that we’re intended to see things in three dimensions (3-D). But so much of what we do every day is in two dimensions (2-D).

From books to computers, to movies and television, they’re all in 2-D. But we live in a 3-D world.

While making things in 3-D isn’t hard, especially if they’re tangible, such as statues, automobiles, dishes and furniture, the challenge is to simulate 3-D with technology.

My first recollection of 3-D was with the old ViewMaster discs. They consist of a plastic viewer and some discs with stereo images on it. By pressing a lever, the disc rotates and a new set of stereo images appears. I saw a lot of Disney stories that way as a kid and was fascinated by how it worked.

My next recollection of 3-D was with the books and movies in which one wears the red and green glasses and then, if you squint just right, you kind of see something in 3-D. The colors are all wrong, but there’s a sense of three dimensions.

Another technology that’s been around for a long time are sheets of lenticular paper which include a number of images that present themselves as one’s location in front of the paper changes. The classic example is the postcard of a woman who winks at you as the card is tilted.

In most instances, 3-D technology requires the user to wear some special glasses or use some type of equipment to make the 3-D images clear.

Most recently, there have been some pretty good 3-D movies. I recall taking my daughter to see the Hannah Montana 3-D movie. It was quite good. The glasses used two pieces of polarizing film to separate the two images on the screen. While darkening the screen a bit, the polarizing filters leave the colors substantially intact.

Another technology that works well is to have glasses with “shutters” that “blink” in sync with different frames being displayed on a screen. If this happens fast enough, the effect is not really noticeable. The challenge is to synchronize dozens or hundreds of inexpensive glasses to the system displaying the images.

These glasses with shutters work remarkably well, especially in keeping the brightness and color true.

The next frontier is, of course, home theatre, where people continue to spend much of their entertainment time. With image refresh speeds on current TVs being quite high, the ability to have “left eye/right eye” frames is becoming practical.

Another challenge beyond just the technology is the programming that will need to change. The addition of a third dimension could change how shows are thought of and produced.

For example, 3-D works best up-close (5-15 feet). Three-dimensional movies of the Grand Canyon have a different visual impact than cards being dealt at a poker game or a camera in a race car passing other cars.

The addition of 3-D to movies adds quite literally another dimension to the producer’s and director’s toolbox of how to communicate.

In the business world, 3-D will add new ways for business people to communicate. Much as color printers and video projectors changed the way people communicate, the addition of 3-D technology will also have an impact in our offices. Expect financial reports and projections to be far more visual and creative services far more impactful.

Given the current commercial 3-D offerings in the local cineplex, I anticipate consumer grade technologies within the next couple of years. And this time, I don’t expect 3-D to be relegated to another parlor curiosity. This time 3-D will become mainstream.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 16 September 2009.
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