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Just like the real thing

In future, video-conferencing, gaming or reading a book may be in 3D and mixed reality is making it happen. AARON TAN reports, in the third of a fortnightly six-parter on emerging technologies that will find their way here between 2006 and 2015.

The future of video-conferencing in Singapore could well look like the holographic message that Princess Leia gave to Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars movie. Well, no R2D2 robot to beam the message, but in full 3D, yes.

You could be looking at miniature real-life images of your friends on your tabletop - using mixed reality, a next-generation technology that allows virtual reality to be fused with the real world.

This will be far different from what current video-conferencing technology is capable of - a flat image on a computer screen.

Mixed reality can also be used in 3D gaming and in books. Or even in the tourism industry to exhibit historical sites online.

Mixed reality

Spearheading mixed reality research in Singapore is the Mixed Reality Lab (MRL) at the National University of Singapore (NUS), and the Centre for Advanced Media Technology (CamTech) at Nanyang Technological University.

It's different from 3D computer games like Half-Life 2, where users are totally immersed in a machine-generated environment.

In mixed reality, you could be playing Half-Life 2 on your school campus grounds. A player's real-world view may be overlaid with 3D computer graphics, text, video, audio and speech, with the help of head-mounted displays.

One of the projects that MRL started is the Human Pacman. In this advanced iteration of the popular classic game, a player wears a head-mounted display that shows the cookies in his paths, which could be anywhere in the NUS campus.

The cookies disappear in his display as he walks over them. To devour the enemy ghosts in the game, he taps on the shoulders of physical enemies. Over at the command centre, updates on how the players are faring are shown as virtual icons of the players, enemies and cookies on a computer screen.

As technology moves towards a higher level of human-computer interaction - shown by the success of arcade games like Dance Dance Revolution - mixed reality games like Human Pacman will change the way humans interact with machines.

The same technology can also be applied to books. One prototype, a Malaysian tourist book, has a real 3D narrator introducing one part of Malaysia on each page.

Users can read the book and see 3D virtual objects like the Petronas Twin Towers, while listening to the narrator at the same time.

The Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) of Singapore has targeted mixed reality as an area of development in its latest technology roadmap, ITR5, announced last month. In the roadmap, where ubiquitous computing is expected, there is a need to understand and manage increasing volumes of data.

Interaction becomes even more critical to make sense of such information, according to Mr Raymond Lee, IDA's deputy director for technology direction.

He said: 'A lot of improvements we see in (computing) systems have been two-dimensional. Now, there's a lot of focus on how we can have a better human computing interface. Going beyond 2D, we are looking at more interactivity, and the kind of edutainment products that can enhance learning and usage.

'The way we have been communicating has been very textual because we don't have the computing power. Mixed reality will allow us to communicate ideas and learn through perception, rather than just in a textual mode.'

Picture this

The director of the Centre for Advanced Media Technology (CamTech) at Nanyang Technological University, Dr Wolfgang Muller-Wittig,and his team have developed an application based on mixed reality.

The Augmented Reality Chinese Character Learning system uses mixed reality software to provide 3D pictorial representations of Chinese characters.

Users first place cards printed with the Chinese character for a ball, for instance, under a webcam.

The system will process the webcam image and add a 3D computer image of a ball on top of the card itself. The final image is a fusion of real and virtual objects to aid language learning. In addition, a sound clip with the character's pronunciation is played.

How this works in simple terms: The mixed reality software will detect markers on each card that indicate a specific character. Once that is noted, a 3D object corresponding to that character is added.

The system is smart enough to analyse two Chinese characters on a single card, and display the right image accordingly.

Dr Muller-Wittig said: 'We are in contact with several schools regarding the integration of such technologies for various subjects. This is still in the decisive discussion phase, and we are looking for funding sources.'

Another application is in architecture, Dr Muller-Wittig said. A 3D model of a prototype bridge can be superimposed onto its real-life location, allowing architects to visualise how it will look like in future.

Tourism is another beneficiary of mixed reality. For example, those visiting historical remnants, such as the Temple of Zeus in Greece, may be able to see the monument in its full glory - albeit a virtual one - at its physical site, complete with ancient Greeks walking around.

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