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Turning virtual visions into reality

By Matthew Knight for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Virtual games such as Second Life and The Sims Online have not only proved to be commercially successful, but have also encouraged public interest and generated a wider understanding of the possibilities that virtual reality (VR) represents.

Since it was conceived in the 1970's, VR has always struggled a bit with its image. Even when it first appeared, the brightly colored angular landscapes looked a bit dated and the bulky headsets looked more like a hood dryer at a hairdressing salon than a cutting edge piece of technology. Enthusiastically informed by computer scientists that this was the next big thing, an apathetic public chose to ignore it.

But the emergence of its younger, more attractive cousin -- augmented reality (AR) -- in an age when computers are all-pervasive and understanding of them is widespread, means that we might, at long last, be ready to take the plunge.

AR looks set to redefine our relationship with the physical world and heralds a new era of computer science. Whereas VR goggles immerse a user in a computer-generated environment, AR uses semi-transparent goggles, which overlay computer-generated graphics onto a user's view of the physical world.

Logistically, AR tasks are far more difficult to perfect than VR applications. Not only does AR have to superimpose graphics over a real environment, but it also has to constantly track the changes in perspective and orientation as the user moves around.

Researchers at the School of Computer and Information Science at the University of South Australia are currently conducting research into a mobile outdoor AR system. Started in 1998, the Tinmith project is the brainchild of Dr Wayne Piekarski who is Assistant Director of the University's Wearable Computer Lab.

Dr Piekarski first became interested in AR when he was looking for a subject to cover in depth during the final year of his engineering degree. This led to a PhD thesis "Interactive 3 D Modeling in Outdoor Augmented Reality Worlds" which has formed the basis of the Tinmith project.

The Tinmith technology has been used to write a number of applications, which he hopes will be applied across a variety of industrial and business sectors in the years to come. Dr Piekarski told CNN via email, "We have been looking into areas like architecture and building design where you can preview and modify buildings that are overlaid onto the real world. We've done agricultural, forestry mining and also military applications, which can train soldiers about an environment or scenario before they do it for real. We like to work on real world problems."

The work conducted at the Wearable Computer Lab is painstaking and delicate. "We custom design all of the backpack systems that we use." Dr Piekarski explained, "The hardware requires a lot of care and thought in the design. If any of it fails, then the system wont work properly."

Back in 1998, the Tinmith hardware consisted of a backpack, helmet and goggles which were bulky, fragile and displayed primitive images. Today the system is more lightweight and robust and can be worn on a belt and the graphics and CPU are now the most powerful available.

Inevitably, glitches and system failures still persist. "You need to write good code," says Dr Piekarski, "When you are outside, you don't have a keyboard or a mouse and so you can't just fix a problem."

Games without frontiers

The team have also applied their knowledge and expertise to field of gaming, developing an AR version of the classic id Software game "Quake". Using a GPS, orientation sensor and a plastic gun, users can walk around outdoors killing virtual monsters in the real world.

"The people who have played it find it fun and exciting," said Dr Piekarski, "but for AR to become mainstream in computer games, companies will have to develop hardware that is cheap and can be sold in large quantities. We have started a spin-off company called A-Rage (www.a-rage.com) which is working on commercializing the technology."

Whilst there is still much to perfect with AR applications, it is almost certain that in the near future we will begin to see it being used in a variety of business sectors. "The sky is the limit," says Dr Piekarski, There are so many areas it could be used."

In the U.S. alone, sales of video games now generate over $10bn a year. It seems likely that AR will be the next step forward. Games like Pac-Man have already broken free from the arcade. In 2004, scientists at the University of Singapore superimposed a 3-D Pac-Man world on to the city's streets. A-Rage is currently developing a 21st century update similar to the arcade classic, space invaders.

Dr Piekarski is upbeat about the future of VR and AR. "It will be interesting to see what happens," he said, "It will depend on companies investing money in the technology. It could, in theory, replace things like watching TV -- instead of just watching a flat screen you could easily go on adventures anywhere in the world."


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