Augmented reality: 5 things to get you acquainted with the augmented future

A cinema still from Marvel’s Iron Man 3, starring Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark, who designs his armour by creating a virtual blueprint on his computer which he manipulates by projecting it in real-time display. -- PHOTO: WALT DISNEY CO 
A cinema still from Marvel’s Iron Man 3, starring Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark, who designs his armour by creating a virtual blueprint on his computer which he manipulates by projecting it in real-time display. -- PHOTO: WALT DISNEY CO 

SINGAPORE - In the Iron Man movies starring Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark, the protagonist designs his armour by creating a virtual blueprint on his computer which he could then manipulate and assemble by projecting it in real-time display.

This manipulation of digital signals within the physical world is called augmented reality (AR).

The technology is still rather primitive, but developments in smart, interactive eyewear - such as Microsoft's newly-announced HoloLens - have been able to provide a convincing AR experience on an individual level.

While Iron Man exo-suits might still reside within the realm of science fiction for the time being, AR is fast becoming reality in today's world.

Here are five things to get you acquainted with the augmented future ahead.

1) Born in 1968

The famed American computer scientist Ivan Sutherland developed the first known augmented reality (AR) headset in 1968. Named The Sword of Damocles, it was a wall-mounted device that did not offer much mobility for the user. Due to the primitive state of processors at the time, it was only able to display simple wireframe drawings.

2) AR vs VR

Do not confuse augmented reality with virtual reality (VR).

AR refers to the superimposition of virtual signals onto the physical world. For example, someone with a pair of AR glasses might see an arrow floating in front of them when they use it for navigation, say, in guiding them in a foreign city.

In contrast, VR places the user within a digital landscape. The Oculus Rift, for instance, is a pair of goggles that renders an entire virtual world for the user. When the user moves his head in the real world, he is actually looking around a virtual world.

3) AR and smartphone apps

Apps like Layar and Wikitude World Browser are available for both iOS and Android. These apps make use of your smartphone's camera to provide an AR experience. Point your camera at a landmark, for instance, and such apps will overlay it with information on it.

Of course, using AR on phones is not as convenient as having it on glasses.

4) The Iron Man connection

Jayse Hansen, the designer behind Iron Man Tony Stark's holographic interfaces in the hugely-popular movies, was hired by interactive eyewear and AR company Meta to help create similar interfaces for the firm's own AR glasses.

Meta is the developer of the SpaceGlasses, which was the first 3D AR glasses to be launched in the world when it was released in 2013.

5) AR in Singapore

Earlier this year, the Singapore Civil Defence Force announced that it was building a training simulator in which AR will be used to teach officers how to use equipment and train for emergencies.

Wearing special goggles, officers will be able to interact physically with high-resolution 3D models of prop vehicles - from cars to trucks - in a road-accident scenario. They will handle rescue equipment, such as hydraulic cutters and fire extinguishers, and the system will be able to observe if the tools are used correctly.

lesterh@sph.com.sg