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Invisible computers and augmented reality

Innovator Mark Billinghurst talks about his pet projects and Kiwi-style innovation

By Ulrika Hedquist, Auckland | Friday, 31 March, 2006

Whether you like them or hate them, mobile phones are part of the fabric of society these days, with ownership rates rocketing all around the world.

The inclusion of cameras in most cellphones available nowadays has added a new twist - one that the computer interface centre, HIT Lab NZ, in Christchurch is keen to exploit.

Mark Billinghurst, director of HIT Lab NZ recently won the World Class New Zealand Awards in the information category and communications technology. The awards are organised by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise and KEA (previously known as the Kiwi Expat Association).

The HIT Lab, at the University of Canterbury, has around 40 staff and is working on about 15 projects at the moment, says Billinghurst.

“A strong theme of what we are doing right now is innovation with mobile phones,” he says. “We are doing work with augmented reality where you take computer graphics and overlay them on the real world.”

Billinghurst and his team are investigating how mobile phone cameras can be used in new and innovative ways.

A former HIT Lab PhD student, Anders Henrysson from Sweden, won two awards at the International Mobile Gaming Awards in Barcelona in February for his mobile game AR (augmented reality) Tennis, which he developed during his internship at the HIT Lab. His two-player game concept uses two camera phones as virtual tennis rackets to hit a virtual ball across a tennis court map.

“That was the first time in the world that someone had made a collaborative, augmented reality game on a mobile phone,” says Billinghurst.

Billinghurst’s team is also looking at how phones can be used to capture data from different senses. Effectively, a mobile phone is a computer that people are carrying around with them, he says.

“The phones of today are far more powerful than the computers that I was using ten years ago,” he says.

For example, the phone could be used as a health monitor, he says. The user could wear a heart-rate sensor or a pedometer, and as the person goes running, the heart rate and the footfalls could be transmitted wirelessly to the mobile phone which would then store the data, says Billinghurst.

“But, also ... it can be used to process the data as well,” he continues. “For example, if you had a heart attack the phone would recognise that and call for help.”

Another strong area for the HIT Lab is visualisation.

“We can put computer graphics on a three screen stereo projection system, so you can really feel immersed inside the graphics. It will give us a lot of visualisation capability.”

The system is the first of its type in New Zealand, he says. Billinghurst is hoping to engage with companies that have alot of data to look at; for example, urban design, architecture or product design companies.

Billinghurst sees several future trends in the computer interface area.

“First of all, computers are going to become invisible and disappear into other technology we use. People don’t think about that in a car, for instance. There are 15 to 20 [in-car]computers that all have very specific roles.”

As computers become more invisible we have more opportunities to interact with them in new ways, he says. He points out three areas that are “really hot” right now in the interface field – augmented reality; perceptual user interfaces, which involve giving the computer senses so it can perceive humans in a natural way; and tangible user interfaces, which is about using real objects to interact with the computer.

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