While computers have advanced at rapid-fire pace, our way of communicating with them—think keyboards, smartphones and “Alexa”—has not.
Tobias Höllerer, associate professor of computer science with University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), has high hopes that Augmented Reality (AR) could be that next great doorway.
He made a case for that technology, which overlays computer graphics and/or audio atop live imagery of the real world, in his talk entitled Learning for Augmented Reality on Feb. 18 during National Engineers Week at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division (NSWC PHD).
The topic is also relevant for the Navy, which is already using AR as a training tool for Sailors and on ships in combat training as part of its digital engineering and modernization campaign. Höllerer is also working with NSWC PHD’s Office of Technology on a grant from Naval Sea Systems Command’s Naval Engineering Education Consortium to develop tracking, model building and registration work for potential AR equipment monitoring and maintenance programs for Sailors.
Because the AR programs of today combine real world imagery with computer imagery, people may be able to learn while performing tasks with such systems, Höllerer explained. That’s better than relying entirely on technology that does everything for them, which they often do now with GPSs, for example, and lose skills such as spatial reasoning over time.
“That’s the difference,” he said. “We (AR users) are not pushing something onto a machine; we are getting the help continuously while we are wearing some kind of augmented reality platform.”
The time is ripe for a new technological innovation, Höllerer said, as the last one that moved the needle was Apple Inc.’s first iPhone in 2007. There have been only minor innovations since then, such as speech interfaces—think Amazon.com, Inc.’s Alexa—and “some dabbling in gesture-based interfaces.”
But now, key pieces are in place that could make AR the “next big thing,” he added. Pick a major technology company, and it’s investing significant money and R&D into AR projects.
“Any big technology company you can list has a big AR project right now because they all see that the growth with the smartphone alone is coming to a standstill,” Höllerer said, “and there is actually a new paradigm possible that takes that a step further to more mobility, by having a wearable device that overlays computer graphics on top of the physical world—which is what augmented reality is.”
The technology enabling AR has developed slower than some expected. The glasses of today, while “still clunky,” will likely continue to shrink as private industry mainstreams the technology, he explained. Examples include Microsoft Corp.’s HoloLens (1st gen) and its HoloLens 2, released for sale in November as a “mixed reality” device.
“This miniaturization and more power is actually coming if people sense good opportunities in this space,” Höllerer said.
Presently, AR does have some competition among other technologies for being “the next big thing,” but each, including AR, has challenges.
The completely computer-generated immersive technology known as virtual reality has interface problems. Oculus headsets are still used mostly by gamers years after their release, Höllerer said, and even though the company is owned by Facebook, Inc., there are problems setting up the hardware and they’re still big and clunky. According to the website, the devices are currently unavailable.
But, Höllerer added, if the technology can be adapted to AR so that people using the headset for virtual reality can work collaboratively in the same virtual space as those using it for AR, an experiment he shows in a video recording from his lab at UCSB, that would double the device’s relevance to industry and potential for private investment and advancement.
Research projects are also investigating combining AR and virtual reality, he explained, such as one studying brain computer interfaces that measure small electric signals in the brain. But that has challenges, too.
Other technology that could potentially claim “next big thing” status includes the Internet of Things concept of network connected devices working together, such as smart refrigerators and phones, but those suffer from maintenance and cost burdens. Physical computing as in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”’s Holodeck, is “farther out,” Höllerer said, and would require unrealistic and unobtainable amounts of energy.
Artificial intelligence and its evolving development into machine learning, or deep learning, is receiving intense commercial investment and development. But the risk and danger are equally high, Höllerer explained, as the algorithms at the core of the technology can be manipulated by people who know them, and the impacts on applications such as extended autopilot vehicles can be very dangerous.
“This is really, really worrisome, because it is very hard to make, for example, automated driving safe and secure,” Höllerer said.
For the Navy, AR, however, has numerous potential applications for maintenance, simulation of deployment and inventory acquisition, and developers are working toward tracking and producing AR on ships, he said. The challenges are the significant amount of metal and self-similarity of surfaces that make it hard for the computer cameras to differentiate.
Other problems AR faces technologically, in general, include tracking, a very narrow field of view and information overload for users.
Still, Höllerer feels AR has the greatest potential to become that “next standard interface” with computers.
“Augmented reality is playing very nicely with all other computer human interface technology; all of the others I can see problems with,” he said. “There’s this massive amount of investment in it, and because so much can actually still go wrong, as I also showed you, we should take charge and always keep the human in control.”
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