What is near-surface Augmented Reality and why should I care ?

This is understandably one of the most frequently asked questions received during AWE2017, so I believe it deserves a blog post.

Some context first: Augmented Reality, or AR, is the process of overlaying something digital on top of the real world. Exactly in which way and where the digital/physical interface should be located is not fixed a priori.  That being said, most current mainstream AR are near-eye, placing the digital/physical interface more on the user’s side, either on a smartphone screen or on a head-mounted display/smart glasses. The opposite approach is obviously to place the augmenting digital information more on the world side, directly on surfaces in the real world. One example is projection-based AR like Lampix. Another one is Neartracker, which is smartphone-based. AR that happens directly on or very close to real-world objects is what I call near-surface AR, to differentiate it from the first near-eye category.

near-surface

As is often the case in engineering, there are pros and cons to the different AR paradigms described above. A full comparison is beyond the scope of this post (check [1] and [2] for more details).

Near-eye AR in a nutshell:

  1. Conventional smartphone-based AR is readily available and takes advantage of existing hardware. However, it forces the user to actively hold and move a device with a small screen, which is tiresome, looks awkward, keeps your hands busy and also potentially rises privacy concerns which is probably why smartphone-based AR is not more prevalent.
  2. Head-mounted display-based AR offer a much more immersive, hands-free experience and has known an huge technological push lately, especially in industrial applications. However, AR displays and glasses are still heavy, expensive and regarded as intrusive and lacking naturalness by many users.

Near-surface AR essentially frees the user’s hands and eyes from wearing any devices.  The “reality” part in “augmented reality” is seen directly with the naked eye.

  • Projection-based AR (also called spatial AR) uses either a fixed or a mobile projector plus optionally a camera system to allow user interaction/input on the projected surface – typically a desk.
  • Near-surface smartphone-based AR is what we envision with Neartracker: smartphones placed directly onto arbitrary real-world surfaces. It blends together a few key features:
    • it is essentially hands-free, allowing precise touch-screen interaction
    • takes full advantage of existing, wide-spread hardware (smartphones) as well as existing AR SDKs and frameworks
    • unlike conventional smartphone-based AR tracking specific markers, images or objects, it enables “magic lens” usage of smartphones across surfaces of arbitrary size via a grid of almost-invisible markers.
    • compatible with – but not requiring –  projection-based spatial augmentation (only for use cases where projection makes sense, like interactive games).
    • unlike projection-based AR, it is compatible with printed content (as long as  tracking gird is still partially visible): it can turn a paper sheet into an UI
    • turns smartphones into tangible digital avatars, effectively bridging AR and tangible user interface technology which seeks to use physical objects to control digital environments – check our game example.

As a conclusion, it should be noted that none of the different AR flavours are good for every use case and near-surface AR is no exception to that. It makes most sense for scenarios in which the interaction naturally happens on a surface (print + digital magic lens, virtual desktop, mixed reality games, smart tables for collaboration, exhibitions, education, etc.). In other scenarios that for example require to display objects in mid-air, head-mounted display are the way to go.

 

 

 

Awakening paper to life: neARtracker for Vuforia + Unity

We’re excited to announce that we have reached an important milestone in bringing about near-surface Augmented Reality for smart devices: the neARtracker sensor and software has been integrated with one of the industry-leading AR platforms, Vuforia + Unity, to create a Proof-of-Concept AR application that uses printed paper as an immersive digital medium.

Using Vuforia + Unity efficient authoring workflow and 3D performance as well as high-quality plant models from our partners at Laubwerk on top of our neARtracker technology enables the creation of compelling AR experiences directly on printed paper. The neARTracker PaperTrack app is showcasing the augmentation of a printed house and garden plan. We will demo this – and more – at AWE Europe in Munich, 19-20 October 2017.

Highlights:

  • Works with the standard Vuforia + Unity editor / distribution
  • Currently available on Android devices, iOS to follow
  • A commercial version of the sensor currently in advanced development

Unlike conventional AR, near-surface AR does not constrain the viewing device to a minimum distance away from the tracked object(s). Rather, the device can freely move directly on a surface, thus enabling an immersive “magic lens” type of experience that is fully integrated with the printed content and removes the awkward “focus-on-a-single-hand-held-small-screen” type of interaction. The clever use of device sensor data allows the experience to partially transcend the 2D surface and permit the user to also navigate in 3D space.

 

Print meets digital: on-surface physical+digital fusion

We’re developing the neARtracker sensor to enable our near-surface AR vision: turn potentially any physical surface into a shared digital environment access point using smart devices in a non-intrusive way.

One step along this road is the fusion of printed paper – one of the most familiar information support – and digital. Here’s a short early-phase demo on how that works:

 

Why near-surface AR

At devEyes, we are working on near-surface AR for existing mobile devices. This post attempts to explain why.

Augmented/Virtual/Mixed Reality applications (see this for an explanation of the differences) are perceived more and more as the next big things in technology these days. It is sufficient to look at this list of people and companies working in the field: virtually every major technology player is pursuing at least one of the following topics:

  • AR mobile apps using existing technology (basically a Smartphone with camera) to enhance (=augment) the surrounding world with additional items – think Pokemon Go. This is already mainstream: from beauty apps (ModiFace) to world discovery (Blippar, Snapchat’s World Lenses)  it seems that sky is the limit. There is also another limit, which is precisely the point of this post.
  • Mixed Reality platforms like Microsoft HoloLens, Magic Leap and the like are basically refining the AR idea to a seamless integration of virtuality into reality via dedicated, currently expensive and rather bulky, hardware: glasses, helmets, head-up display and the like.
  • VR gear – like Oculus Rift (Facebook) and the like. Unlike AR or MR, VR attempts to fully replace the perceived reality with a virtual one. Which makes a lot of sense for some things (immersive games, sports events, etc)

None of the above technologies is currently suitable for near-surface interaction, at least to our knowledge (and apart from some academic research). It’s a neglected area where existing technology breaks, while it has, in our view, a currently underestimated potential for AR/MR applications, for a multitude of reasons:

  1. Availability: not only is office work typically done near-surface (on a desk/table), but also many recreative activities are suitable for near-surface interactions (table games, etc.)
  2. Naturalness and precision of interaction: handling a touch display placed on a table while moving it around feels natural.
  3. Tangible: devices can be used as tangible UI alements on a surface
  4. Low intrusiveness: no helmet, no “in-the-face” device screen,  no hardware installation except an additional device sensor (which can be incorporated in the device itself)
  5. Co-location: it offers an excellent sharing environment for social, multi-device co-located interaction – video here.
  6. Projection-enhanceable if a more immersive experience is desired –  video here.

We envision near-surface AR as a complementary, not competing, technology to the continuum of currently existing approaches. Find out more on our home page.

devEyes – escaping the hopeless little screen

“Ubiquitous computers must know where they are” – Mark Weiser, “The Computer for the 21st Century“

Smartphones and tablets have become omnipresent and are unquestionably practical, useful and powerful devices. They do miss, however, one very important aspect of human-computer interaction (HCI): the natural, healthy immersion of users in their surrounding physical world. Mobile devices focus attention on one little screen – think people bumping to each other and non-responsive “zombie” playing kids. As digital content consumers, mobile device users are confined to a very limited space and the interaction with a given digital item is limited to one person at the time. The key point of devEyes is addressing these particular issues of mobile computing.

Social computing

Paradoxically, while mobile devices have brought unprecedented communication opportunities, the genuine social aspect is often perceived as lacking. People sitting together and just disconnectedly checking their phones without talking has already become an omnipresent cliché. This is, again, a side effect of everyone being “stuck in their hopeless little screens”, as the late Leonard Cohen wrote in “Democracy“.

With devEyes, each device becomes an integrated piece of a larger, common digital space – hosted on the physical surface. Co-located sharing and presenting of content as well as multi-user interaction becomes a natural thing to do and users are directly aware that they act in a “social computing” environment.

Work

A laptop or desktop computer, a mobile phone and a desk – the typical office working environment. You do most work on the computer and use your mobile device to check mails when you’re not in the office, but what about the desk !? It used to be good for organizing your paper documents on it, but in the digital era the desk inspired the desktop metaphore and then just turned into support for computing devices – a rather sad destiny.

How about making the desk great again ? 🙂 With devEyes, you can use your physical desk as digital content storage via your mobile device. Digital items can then flow back and forth from your desk to your mobile device – and from there to your desktop or the Internet. Other people can leave items on your desk which only you can see. You can choose to make the desk  content visible using projection. Or not. Your desk, your rules.

Play

While most adults just silently sink in their mobile screens, children are actually much more actively trying to add a true social component to their playing on devices. They discuss, show and teach each other, fight over stuff that happen in mobile games, and so on  – but they hit the same fundamental limit: a small device screen is, in itself, not exactly a proper tool for social interaction.

In contrast, a game in which the device is an integral part of a larger spatially augmented “playground” (either by means of projection, as in the right picture, or by traditional printing as in table games) allows truly social gaming.

Summary

These examples are meant to show that, by seamlessly integrating mobile devices on physical surfaces, digital content is no longer confined to a device screen, but “lives” on a much larger physical surface like your desk, a conference table or just a piece of paper – virtually everywhere.

From there, it can be “embodied” in a device and manipulated as a physical object (tangible interaction), made visible outside the device by projection mapping on the surface, shared with other users on the same surface (co-located collaboration), moved to another physical location, sent back and forth across devices, desktop computers and the Internet. The focus shifts from the device to its surrounding environment – while preserving all existing functionality.