Sunday, October 26, 2014

Reality Bytes

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Valley visionaries are spearheading computer technologies that enhance your grip on the here-and-now – and take us one step closer to inventing the holodeck.


I put on the glasses and I’m gliding over Mars. The cartographically-accurate surface of the Red Planet rolls below me in 3D. A tiny sun shines dimly. Rusty landscape and twilight skies surround me, even when I look over my shoulder.


Back in the real world, the architect of my Martian fly-over – Valley software executive Ken Varga – is talking about a terrestrial version of the simulation. Imagine glasses that compile radar and transponder data so that on a foggy night over Sky Harbor, pilot and tower can “see” the runway. Varga’s company – Real Time Consulting in Phoenix – is also developing consumer-use versions of the glasses for games, road-navigation help and other uses. “We’re going to make the first holodeck,” he promises.

Welcome to augmented reality, or AR: computer technology that superimposes text, pictures, or other information onto the real world through a smartphone, webcam, or other high-tech screen. It’s rapidly catching fire in the tech world, and several Valley firms are fanning the flames.

At his Augmented Reality Development Lab in Tempe, Scott Jochim is developing AR for K-12 classrooms. He opens a manual filled with barcode-like symbols – all mundane and unremarkable to the naked eye. But through a webcam and laptop, 3D images of shuttles, space stations and Saturn leap off the paper. You move worlds around, make them spin, and see for yourself how much bigger the sun is than the Earth.

“Kids play video games for hours a day,” Jochim says. “They’re engaging with that content, but when they’re in school, they’re glassy-eyed. So why not create that type of environment for them [in school]?”

Jochim’s software lets students construct molecules, manipulate numbers and shapes, or build a beating heart. About 10 Valley-area schools are using it, Jochim says, and about 100 in the U.S. and abroad.

At ASU’s Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing (CUbiC), students work from a gadget-strewn bench to make life easier for people with disabilities. Ph.D. candidate Troy McDaniel demonstrates face-mapping AR goggles that will alert the vision-impaired to approaching acquaintances, signaling via a vibrating belt. “You could design custom vibrations,” McDaniel says. “Maybe for your girlfriend, you have a heartbeat-like rhythm. Or for your boss, it’s a more intense rhythm, you know?”

Some Valley-developed AR technologies appear ready for prime-time. In 2007, CUbiC and legally-blind student David Hayden collaborated on NoteTaker, an AR system that puts a live, magnified image of a classroom blackboard on a TabletPC. NoteTaker helped Hayden ace his ASU math/comp-sci courses. He’s now pursuing a Ph.D. at MIT – and, he says, forming a company to market NoteTaker.

How “real” is AR?
“AR has a lot of potential, but it will take a while for affordable technology to catch up with ambitious theoreticals,” says futurist author Pat Cadigan, whose novels mix gritty reality with hi-tech sci-fi. She adds: “Probably the most successful AR at this very moment isn’t visual at all – it’s Siri, available to iPhone users.”

A few Valley AR projects that might impress Siri:
• Scottsdale company Shotzoom (shotzoom.com) sells iPhone apps to help golfers judge angle and distance, work around traps, and select a club – “very much like a good caddy,” says CEO Craig Prichard. The apps show ground or satellite views of 38,000 courses worldwide.

• Point the Mobile Black History Project smartphone app at sites in a dozen or so U.S. cities, and it will fill your screen with text on a place’s story pre-Civil War. The app’s creator, the Cronkite School’s Retha Hill, is working on a version to let users add and share information.

• When Scottsdale firm iGo needed a campaign for power-strips it says slay household “energy vampires,” it turned to Tempe digital marketing agency Sitewire to grab some attention. Point the AR marker from the print ad (or download it) at your laptop webcam and watch the animated blood flow (vampirepowersucks.com). The 2010 campaign was one of the first to use AR and surely won’t be the last.

 

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