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Welcome to augmented reality

We live in a world where distinguishing between fact and fiction is increasingly becoming difficult. In fact the lines are blurring so much that “reality” is a saleable product now. Don’t believe us? Look around you - heard of a little concept called Reality TV? An entertainment sham that people buy into irrespective of whether there is any semblance of reality in what is being watched. But of course we digress. When focusing on reality in technology, there are a few occasions where your reality is blurred. Everytime you play a game for instance. You get so immersed in the game that your surroundings dissolve, you almost enter that virtual world and when someone calls out for you from the “real” world you return to it with a jolt. Almost resultantly, if we might add. There are technologies out there that blur your reality at varying levels. Some embellish what you experience while some completely immerse you into an alternate reality. Augmented reality is just one of those realities at sale.

WELCOME TO AUGMENTED REALITY

Change your perception of reality by understanding this fascinating technology. How different is it from Virtual Reality? Read on to find out

We live in a world where distinguishing between fact and fiction is increasingly becoming difficult. In fact the lines are blurring so much that “reality” is a saleable product now. Don’t believe us? Look around you - heard of a little concept called Reality TV? An entertainment sham that people buy into irrespective of whether there is any semblance of reality in what is being watched. But of course we digress. When focusing on reality in technology, there are a few occasions where your reality is blurred. Everytime you play a game for instance. You get so immersed in the game that your surroundings dissolve, you almost enter that virtual world and when someone calls out for you from the “real” world you return to it with a jolt. Almost resultantly, if we might add. There are technologies out there that blur your reality at varying levels. Some embellish what you experience while some completely immerse you into an alternate reality. Augmented reality is just one of those realities at sale.

What is augmented reality anyway?

If you’ve been a Digit reader for long, you might already know what the word ‘augmented’ means. But just in case you’re not, let us try to break it down for you – the word ‘augmented’ means enhanced or increased. Simple enough right? The phrase simply means “enhanced reality”.

But if reality is what it is how does someone enhance or embellish it? By using a tool such as your smartphone. The concept of augmented reality revolves around adding more information to your world (or let’s says just your view of the world). The augmentation is usually done by adding extra data to the perception of things around us which are not visible normally. Let us say you are walking down the road (let’s assume, in a city where you have never been) and you see a fenced and open area but it doesn’t have a signboard demarcating the plot. You check on your phone and Google maps say that the area is a meditation centre. See? How your mobile phone enhanced your perception of your world?

The above was a mere example to show how everyday tools help us get more out of our reality. But before you grasp the above example as one of augmented reality, its best we tell you that Google maps do not really come under the umbrella of augmented reality.

Figure 1: An application of augmented reality

Imagine again, you go to Shanghai, a well-known city in China. What you are looking for is a vegetarian restaurant but since everything is written in chinese which you do not understand, you are unable to figure out where to go. You take out your smartphone, connect to the internet and launch an app. This app looks through the rear camera and shows you what it sees except there’s more than just the actual scene. You point it to a building, and it shows a graphical callout that says “hotel” next to the building, you point it to a different building and it says it’s a non-veg restaurant. Further down the road you see another building marked as a “theater”. Now, that is what is augmented reality. Such an app would really be enhancing your perception of reality; it would add information to your reality - it would augment reality.

Another example for visual augmentation would be glasses which tell you’re the direction in which you are looking. If you are looking towards east, it shows on screen what you are seeing (of course) and in addition, tells you that you are looking in the ‘east’ direction (if that is the direction you were facing).

Figure 2: Augmented reality is not a distant future anymore

This information is displayed on the transparent glass. You turn right by 90 degrees and it would say that you are now facing south. Add ‘night vision’ view to those glasses and you have a tool that can be used on a night safari (or Osama assassination raid) without losing track of direction! In this example, we want to highlight the fact that augmented reality is not dependent on an internet connection. Such a device would work via an inbuilt electronic compass. You’ll find out more about exactly how, in the later chapters.

Mediated reality

Just like augmented reality is about enhancing the perception of the world around us by adding more information to it, a mediated reality is about mediating it. Mediation means “coming in between two things to affect an agreement”. Here the two things are you and “the reality”, well, the ‘real’ reality for that matter (hence we write it as the reality)! If you’re wondering “Isn’t augmented reality the same a mediated reality?

After all augmentation too comes in between us and the reality!” The answer is both yes and no. Actually the question is akin to “Isn’t Apple and Fruit the same? After all they both grow on trees!” Without further ado, let us see the actual difference.

Mediated reality is a way to alter your perception of your surroundings by adding or removing information from it. Removing is the keyword here. While augmented reality is achieved by adding information to the perception of our surroundings, removing information from surrounding would qualify for mediation as well.

Virtual Reality

Much before augmentation was linked to reality, virtualization was. Virtual reality was a term which has been flashed a lot in recent past. Geeks who love to watch TV channels of the likes of Discovery and National Geographic would have been hearing the term for quite some time now. However, if you were having a vacation on Mars all this while, it would be great to get informed about virtual reality before we proceed further.

The term ‘virtual reality’ is easily one of the most self-contradicting terms ever coined – an oxymoron, if you will – though it is simple enough to understand. Virtual reality means a ‘reality’ which ‘imaginary’. But understand that this is not just imagination or processes that happen in the mind. It is sensory perception that is induced by tools from the real world. The term refers to simulation of reality in a way that it looks and feels real but is not. Science is pushing boundaries everyday to cover the feeling part well enough.

Virtual reality is a simulation (the virtual part) of some part of real world (the reality part). In most cases known, the simulation is done in either of two ways:

1 The subject (person) is sent to a room with giant displays. The picture being displayed on the walls of the screens all around is calibrated with the position where the person is located. This makes the subject see the simulation as if he is watching it for real. The acoustics system is synced well with the environment as well.

2 The subject is given wearable gadgets which are synced with each other and allow him to watch an ongoing simulation (video and audio) as if he is watching reality. The wearables also include gloves fitted with sensors to detect movements. Neck and body movements are also detected using other wired or wireless methods. These sensors send signals to the controller which then calculates the scene to be shown. The wearable devices also send feedback to the subject to make his experience more real. For instance vibration could be induced on the subjects seat if the scene being viewed is that of a jeep going through a Safari.

Figure 3: The two ways of doing VR

Virtual reality is used in a lot of applications such as preliminary training exercises (e.g. for pilots and military) and entertainment. One of the lesser known usage of VR is for therapeutic purposes on psychological levels.

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality - similarities

It might just seem that virtual reality is very different from augmented reality. After all, they look so different. Virtual reality is all about making you believe that you are in a place where you actually aren’t, experiencing sensations that aren’t there.

Take for an instance a 3D game that you play on your PC (the likes of Crysis, Need for Speed etc.) You could call some of them to have an immersive gameplay. Bring in a large display (say a 42-inch display) and you can get really lost into the world. In no time you start feeling that every single move in the game is actually happening with you in the real world. Every bullet you shoot and every turn you take feels like happening in real world though none are real. You start living in a reality that does not exist. That is the effect which scientists all around the world have been trying to enhance and as scientific research goes forward, a few things start coming to everyday technology.

A very popular game, Prototype’s storyline was set in New York city. Locations, buildings, roads - all were designed into the game. During the gameplay, you run through the streets of the city, climb buildings. Let us assume you are not doing the gameplay on a single screen but a room with all walls as displays which make you believe that you are actually in the gameplay. Wouldn’t that be really a great gameplay? You would be totally immersed.

Imagine an extension of this scenario. What if all those people in the game were real? By real we mean graphically generated models of real people right down to the clothes they were wearing. What if each one of those people were similarly plugged into this virtual universe, through virtual reality rooms of their own? The traffic could be created in a way to mimic actual traffic conditions on that day. So it the weather. Such a game wouldn’t be so immersive that you would actually forget who you are and where you are? Would you call that game a game? Or would you call it an application built around the concepts of ‘augmented reality’? It’s both. In a way Virtual Reality is a higher level of augmentation of reality - it is the peak. In the realms of Virtual Reality, it’s not just the information that is added to reality but also control of that virtualised environment.

One of the main uses of virtual reality in the times we live is simulation programs that help train people. For instance, training Pilots. Allowing a newbie to take control of a fighter jet is extremely risky to both life and property and thus, flight simulation is one of the major uses of VR. For a VR flight simulator what could be the factors involved? Well, we’ll need a 3D map of the reality and load it on a computer. We’ll need to simulate the Aircraft’s cockpit right down to the last knob and dial. The sounds that the plane produces right down to the beep, squeak and grid. We would need a pilot’s seat and so on. This virtual environment will even need to react to what is happening for e.g. the seat would need to tilt as the trainee pilot banks the plane and so on.

Go over the scenario and you’ll realise that all that happened was augmentation. We took conditions from the real world such as altitude and wind-speed related information and plugged them into the simulation. We enhanced the experience by providing the right type of seat. We added the change in view as the plane would tilt. Virtual reality might not seem all that different.

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality - difference

All lines between virtual reality and augmented reality are not blurred and hazy, there are certain stark differences:

1 Virtual reality can be built around places that do not exist. While we gave an example of Prototype which has been set in Manhattan, there are a plenty of games which are set in totally unreal locations and there is no way you could connect those places to reality. On the other hand, AR is not connected to non-existent worlds. All places on which AR would work (both theoretically and practically) have to exist.

2 Virtual reality requires certain setup which allows the experience to be immersive. The concept of VR revolves around building an experience so immersive that the subject (okay, we all hate being subjects, makes us sound like lab rats, but that is how you would find it written in a lot of literature concerning VR) forgets that he is not in the real world and perceives the virtual world as reality instead. Setup usually needs tools built for this purpose such as special glasses, large screens and other wearable gadgets that detect your movements and predict what you are trying to do in the virtual world. AR does not need all that. The concept of AR revolves around enhancing the reality that already exists by adding meaningful information to it.

3 Usage of AR almost always requires you to be present at the place where surroundings have to be to augmented.
One of the simpler ways to differentiate between VR and AR is that VR is about ‘experiencing’ a place whether or not it is real. AR is about ‘enhancing’ the perspective of a place by adding more information to it. All other differences creep in due to the differences in main idea around which they revolve.