Business Today

Transcending Reality

Whether to make reading more interactive or to enable virtual trial rooms, Augmented Reality is making a comeback.
twitter-logo Nidhi Singal   Delhi     Print Edition: October 23, 2016
Transcending Reality
SURREAL AR superimposes computer-generated content on the real world when viewed through a device to enhance the viewing experience

What's in a game? Good time pass, yes. But what about running around in public with your smartphone held before you, risking your neck in rush-hour traffic, giving up your job, endangering religious sentiments by dashing into churches and temples with your phone, exorcising your fears by sauntering into cemeteries at midnight, having politicians, priests and governments denounce you and your ilk? Flight of imagination, surely? For most games, yes, but not if the game in question is a certain Pokémon Go. Millions of people worldwide have been known to do these downright bizarre actions, and more, in their quest to 'catch' a Pokémon - a virtual monster that lurks, practically, everywhere. The game has been worshipped and reviled, has become the subject of lawsuits, and even been banned in some places because of its nuisance value.

So, what's the big deal? The guy running around with the phone is actually playing the game, a game based on a technology called augmented reality (AR), where the virtual actually transgresses into the real world, and 'creates' a new, combined world of the real and the unreal. It is big, big business, and it is going to become even bigger. The world will probably no longer be the same once AR is developed further to its full potential.

The concept of AR is older than most of us. Way back in 1968, Ivan Sutherland developed a head-mounted display system at the University of Utah, which used computer-generated graphics to show simple wireframe drawings. This was the first ever experiment carried out in the domain of AR - a term coined much later, in 1990, by Thomas Caudell, a former Boeing researcher.

In simple terms, AR superimposes computer-generated content - image, video or sound - on the real world when viewed through a device, such as a smartphone, and enhances the viewing experience. In Pokémon Go, when you point your camera at the surroundings, the Pokémon that pops up is just a superimposed animal on your screen. Similarly, Snapchat and MSQRD have lenses, masks and filters that are digitally superimposed on your face.

In Augmented Reality, things are superimposed on the current environment, while Virtual Reality cuts you from your surroundings and takes you into a new virtual world. AR requires special hardware with cameras and apps (which are slightly diffi cult to develop), and the cost involved in this technology is quite high. On the other hand, VR has been made mainstream with affordable VR headsets such as Cardboard. VR apps are easy to develop as they are not built on live surroundings. AR requires tracking of real-time motion and movement to work well. While the same is required in VR, too, it works smoothly as everything is virtual.

AR is being used across industries including healthcare, training, education and media, among others. A special Google-Glass-like see-through AR simulator, called ShootAR, was developed for the Indian Army by Imaginate, a Hyderabad-based AR firm. It is an immersive environment that enables a soldier to view and interact with a mixed rendered environment of the real world with a virtual world. In 2015, ACK Media and Blippar India came up with India's first AR-enhanced magazine, Tinkle, for children. Lenskart, too, has used AR for people to try on spectacles before purchasing them in a virtual trial room.

AR of the Future

Not just start-ups, technology giants such as Apple, Microsoft and Google, too, are investing in AR. In an interview with ABC News recently, Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, made his preference for AR over VR very clear. "My own view is that augmented reality is the larger of the two, probably by far, because this gives the capability for both of us to sit and be very present talking to each other, but also have other things visually for both of us to see," he said.

While Microsoft's HoloLens is hailed as one of the most pioneering launches, at $3,000, it is expensive. This head-mounted display is equipped with sensors, cameras, speakers, three processors - CPU, GPU and HPU - along with the ability to track 360-degree motion movement even when indoors. With taxes, the costs go higher. This calls for more affordable solutions to contribute towards the growth of this industry. For instance, analysts suggest that companies could develop head-mounted displays similar to cardboard VR headsets but with an opening for the camera (camera and apps are essential for AR). While these will increase the use of AR apps, the lack of multiple sensors and camera within the device will restrict their usage for high-precision industries such as defence, aviation and health care. Incidentally, companies abroad are working on head-mounted displays that are equipped with the sensors and are affordable.

Jon Peddie, President, Jon Peddie Research, is optimistic about AR gaining popularity. "The technology is finally getting good enough to deliver the promise. Costs are coming down; communications have improved and become ubiquitous, display resolutions have increased while getting physically smaller, lighter and less power-hungry. But AR is still very application-specific," he says.

Google is set to make it big in the AR space with Project Tango, an AR-based platform for which it has tied up with Lenovo for now. A Google spokesperson explains Project Tango as "a platform that uses computer vision to give devices the ability to understand their position relative to the world around them. Tango starts by taking a standard Android device and adds an additional wide-angle camera, a depth- sensing camera, more accurate sensor timestamping, and a software stack that exposes this capability via APIs (application programming interface) to mobile applications." Just by holding the phone, virtual objects and information start to appear on the surroundings. It is capable of measuring the surroundings using 3D tools. This means you could furnish your home with the use of AR before buying furniture, so you can get a sense of how it will look. With the Lenovo Phab Pro 2, a Google Project Tango-powered smartphone - equipped with a 6.4-inch QHD display and four cameras including a 16-MP rear camera, 8-MP front-facing camera, a depth-sensing infrared camera and a motion tracking camera - you can have a virtual dinosaur walking in your bedroom.

The role of AR in the medical field will only become more prominent going forward. In future, surgeries can be facilitated by a doctor sitting thousands of miles away. Any field that requires high precision training and maintenance can utilise the benefits of AR. For instance, while repairing an aircraft, a superimposed image or video over the machinery can not only simplify the process and save time, but also ensure accuracy. Real estate is already using AR to lure new customers by showing a video of the sample apartment. AR is being used in museums where tourists can install the app and point the camera at the exhibits to learn more about their history through images, videos and 3D graphics.

The Challenges

India's interest in the field of AR is rising, but marred by lack of adequate infrastructure. Hemanth Satyanarayana, Founder and CEO of Imaginate Software Labs, explains, "The biggest challenge for the growth of AR in India is the absence of a premium AR device such as the HoloLens that can track 360-degree motion. The taxes incurred to get these products from abroad make it even more expensive." Building an AR app is challenging, too, because it has to be built on live surroundings.

To access AR apps, one requires a device with camera and processor, and also patience - holding a device in your hands for a long time is not enjoyable. Besides, ease of access is clearly amiss. "AR has not been adopted by the mass market because the technology is not ready for easy, seamless use. If you use a phone or tablet for AR, you have to hold it up. If you are in a supermarket and everything is AR-enabled, how many times will you pull your phone out of your pocket? And how long will you hold it up? For the technology to be broadly adopted by consumers, it will need to be more transparent," explains Tuong H. Nguyen, Principal Research Analyst, Gartner.

Globally, so far, the growth in this space has been slower than expectations. But the future holds promise. According to Reportlinker, a market research solutions company, the AR market is expected to be worth $100.24 billion by 2024. The key drivers for this would be the mounting convergence between wearable devices, AR and the Internet of Things (IoT).

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