Engineering: The Bright Future of Augmented Reality

Dev Kapadia ’23

Example of an Augmented reality sandbox at the Game Science Center. Based on the height of the sand at a point, it is assigned a color relative to the other heights in the sandbox and a topographical map is produced. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

While many common items in our society fall short of the function their names promise (auto-mobiles don’t drive themselves and smart-phones aren’t actually that smart on their own), big companies and startups alike are working toward delivering on the performance that the name Augmented reality (AR) promises. To truly be considered AR, devices need to allow users to view objects that they design and place in their own augmented reality. Then, these objects must stay put in the augmented reality with respect to the user’s point of view. Having said that, users should still be able to clearly view real-life objects they are interacting in the real world. Therefore, augmented reality must do what it says: simply add functionality to the world through the perception of the user. Each company is overcoming these challenges in a different way, so the best way to assess how close society has come to AR is to take a closer look at the major products in the market.

Microsoft is one of the larger players in the AR market. In 2016, the tech-giant introduced its AR headset called HoloLens. While its technology is impressive, it carries a price tag of $3,500 and performs similarly to the $2,300 headset produced by the startup Magic Leap. Both utilize the power of see-through lenses to construct a three-dimensional view and can create extremely realistic objects when used indoors. However, this technology’s performance is limited to only augmenting the front fifty degrees of a user’s field of vision.1

While headsets can offer higher AR performance, they can be uncomfortable, impractical, and expensive. Ubiquity6, a startup based in San Francisco, released their AR app Display.land in November of 2019. In Display.land, users can take, alter, and share their AR models of actual places using their smartphone cameras. Ubiquity6 harnesses the phone-sensor data and computer-vision to capture the models as accurately as possible. Ubiquity6 founder Anjney Midha proudly considers the app to be a version of Minecraft, Roblox, and Fortnite Creative meant for adults.1

Sturfee is another startup that uses smartphone cameras, satellite technology, and computer-vision to identify the object the camera is pointing at. Then, the technology builds its own three-dimensional model of the object using a mesh grid–a plane split up into small squares that can each be twisted, bent, and stretched–to manipulate the object more easily. This technology seeks to be the successor to many of the outdoor AR projects that producers were looking to offer to the public, such as the outdoor museum in San Francisco that the interactive AR company Walking Cinema currently produces1. In fact, this technology is the successor of one of the most “primitive” forms of augmented reality: panoramas designed to make the paintings appear three-dimensional so that viewers felt they were standing in the scene.2

The recent spur in smartphone AR has not been missed by one of the biggest players in the smartphone world. There are rumors that Apple will design the next iPhone to have three-dimensional distance sensors around the back-facing cameras. If they do, AR developers could then harness this technology to build technology that overcomes the limitations in speed and performance of current AR technology. But Apple may not be done fueling the AR obsession; there are also rumors that the company is designing its own set of AR glasses that could release anytime from this year to 2023.1

While AR still has a long way to go, significant efforts are being made to improve the technology. Both headsets and apps have their respective benefits with headsets being more powerful and apps being more practical. However, because of the lower price and accessibility of smartphone apps, along with the potential for smartphone developers to support the AR craze, companies will most likely target smartphone AR to gain initial market share and dominance in the new market. Still, releases of AR technology, headsets and apps alike are being met with increasing enthusiasm, signaling a bright future ahead for the industry.

References:

[1] Roush, W. (2020, February). Augmented Reality Is Getting Real. Scientific American. Retrieved February 17, 2020, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/augmented-reality-is-getting-real/

[2] Shannon Selin. (2019, March 28) Panoramas: 19th-Century Virtual Reality. Retrieved February 19, 2020, from https://shannonselin.com/2016/11/panoramas-19th-century/

 

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