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The Top Ten Technologies: #3 Augmented Reality

The promise of immersive technology for education

An emerging technology promises to make "educational immersion" available to practically everyone. This technology is called augmented reality, and it works by overlaying seemingly-real experiences on top of a person's local environment. Let me explain:

A person who wishes to experience a learning session via augmented reality would don a pair of see-through glasses that also host two tiny video cameras and a pair of earphones. A tiny computer, perhaps worn on the wrist or around the waist, would recognize the geometry and content of the user's immediate environment and overlay that environment with meaningful images and sounds for a specific purpose.

From the user’s point of view, he or she would apparently see and hear other people, objects, or events taking place right in front of or around them. These augmented perceptions would appear to be completely real. In technical terms, they would be rendered by the wearable computer with light shading that takes into account both the ambient and directional light sources found in the user's immediate environment.

Put simply, the augmented reality system is "projecting" people, objects, environments or other elements onto the environment around you.

In its most simple form, an augmented reality system could, for example, project a different colored carpet or wallpaper as you stroll through your house. On a slightly more advanced level, it could project memory icons and appear to place them strategically throughout your house so that, for example, you would see a certain icon (with an attached note, perhaps) as you open your front door or medicine cabinet. In practical terms, this might serve as a personal reminder to make sure you pick up something at the grocery store or remember to take medications.

But these rudimentary applications are just the beginning. The more advanced applications of augmented reality have to do with learning. Augmented reality technology holds the promise of immersing individuals in experiential learning environments. Instead of reading about the Civil War in a textbook, a student could observe battles or conversations as if they were there. Animated, lifelike historical figures would seemingly appear right in front of them. The student would see and hear events at a level unmatched by today's outmoded lecture formats.

The applications are tremendous: students could learn anatomy by walking through a human body and observing the functioning of biological systems. Students could learn geography by "flying" around the globe, visiting any city they wished, zooming in and out of detailed renderings of geopolitical regions. Students could learn chemistry by observing, at a simulated microscopic level, chemical structures and reactions. These are but a few of the many potential applications.

Interactive learning

And yet even this does not explore the full potential of augmented reality. The best application comes from allowing students (the user) to interact with projected characters. For example, a student could see, hear and actually converse with historical figures such as Albert Einstein or Charles Dickens. Projected virtual characters could become teachers and coaches who hold ongoing mentoring conversations with the student and physically demonstrate skills and activities.

This level of augmented reality requires tremendous computational power. The systems and technologies needed to accomplish this include:

Real-time vision recognition (three-dimensional geometry mapping and more)

Voice recognition

Real-time overlay display technology (built in to the wearable glasses, must cover light shading, depth of field considerations, etc.)

Sound and voice rendering, including spatial considerations

Human character rendering (covering body mechanics, adherence to physical laws, etc.)

AI (artificial intelligence) technology for understanding user speech and creating intelligent, meaningful dialog

Miniaturization advances for wearable CPUs and sensory devices

Improvements in portable power

(Interestingly, several of these areas are being pushed forward through interactive gaming technology. First person games such as Microsoft's Halo are outstanding demonstrations of real-time visual and auditory rendering technology.)

Augmented reality: a massive global industry

I predict a tremendous augmented reality industry is waiting to emerge. This industry will dwarf today's software and computing industries and become one of the most influential technological shifts yet experienced by our civilization. With this technology in place, users could simply obtain different program modules and plug them into their standard augmented reality hardware systems. Available programs would certainly include:

Educational: Personal coaches, trainers and teachers enhance the knowledge of users through demonstrations, conversations and enactments.

Entertainment: Augmented reality systems offer unprecedented opportunities for entertainment. Imagine interactive theatrical presentations, augmented multiplayer gaming, "fly-through" movies, and other similar applications.

Mental health: Virtual mental health consultants can help users face and overcome challenging situations such as conversations with relatives, public speaking, relationships with the opposite sex and many others.

Reference: A virtual reference library would allow users to physically explore areas of interest by moving through a projected knowledge set and picking out images, movies, sounds or text.

Computer / human interfaces: Augmented reality opens up a whole new world of possibilities in computer / human interfaces. There's much more on this in a later section, but consider the possibility that a computer could potentially be located anywhere in your environment. Your living room wall could be rendered as a giant 2D display, or your back yard could become a giant interlinked Internet search result set that you could explore at will.

Personal environment enrichment: Don't like your office environment? Add plants, waterfalls, and hummingbirds to your office with the "sounds of nature" software module. Is your significant other unbearably ugly? Overlay their natural face with any character you want with the "augmented people" module. Want to bring a relative back from the dead and tell them something? Plug in the "reborn relatives" module and chat with them in your living room. The possibilities are endless.

Hopefully, you see the potential for this sort of technology in terms of uplifting humanity. The examples I've mentioned here barely scratch the surface.


At December 20, 2004 at 12:11 PM Anonymous said...

Interesting. Also note the #8 top technology: Human/Computer interfaces.

Among the technologies listed are eye tracking and 3D. Three dimensional imaging is a piece of cake for MVIS technology, of course. Eye-tracking is a side effect of the technology (along with retinal pattern security)that drops out almost without extra development effort. Here's a University of Washington patent that incorporates both these concepts: 5,982,555

The capability of a VRD system to continuously monitor the retinal pattern of the user is powerful. Passwords would be unnecessary. Information could not be seen by the wrong eyes.


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