Chris Fitzgerald talks to Dr Ryan Gibson about pushing the boundaries of augmented reality.
A strange phenomenon gripped the world’s technology-loving population last year. It saw hordes of people, of all ages, shuffling along city streets and country lanes alike, staring doggedly at their mobile devices, occasionally exclaiming: “I’ve got one!”
This was Pokemon Go, an augmented reality game from Niantic Labs that requires the player to follow GPS co-ordinates to a real-world location and, once there, use their phone screen to capture a digitally-generated creature.
The game was downloaded a reported 500 million times in 2016 and brought the concept of augmented reality into the mainstream, a concept that is perhaps best broadly described as the integration of digital graphics into real-world environments.
GCU’s Dr Ryan Gibson is one of many academics excited by its potential. He recently received a Scottish Funding Council Innovation Voucher to research and develop an augmented-reality headset with Moray-based designer Everwood Interactive.
“Previously, when discussing augmented reality, it has been in the context of providing enhanced digital visual information through an external device, such as a smartphone,” he says.
“We are looking to push this on to the next stage.
We want to develop a camera-based, wearable head-mounted display platform, consisting of both hardware and software components. The idea is that camera-captured video will be obtained from the user’s field of view and perspective. This will then be analysed and enhanced electronically, and will present the augmented reality onto a display in front of the user’s eyes.”
Due to the confidential nature of the intellectual-property work being undertaken, Ryan says he cannot reveal too much more about this “hands free” project until it is complete. However, he is keen to discuss the overall value of augmented reality. Far from being ephemeral, he believes the technology will have long-lasting impact, not just on entertainment, but on education and pragmatism, too.
“It can, for example, present car-related digital information onto a windscreen,” he says. “This means the driver no longer needs to look down at the dashboard to check his speed or fuel level.
“Another example is a terrific solar-system teaching app that brings the planets to life for schoolchildren.
“Also, if you were learning another language, such as Spanish, then the augmented reality system can start to tag and highlight real-world objects in Spanish to enhance your learning process.
“These are just three examples of the many possibilities presented to us by this technology.”
Ryan began working at GCU as a lecturer in Electronic Engineering in January last year. His interest in augmented reality came about when he was completing his PhD in Augmented Vision at GCU.
“I worked on algorithms and hardware for those suffering from visual ailments,” he says. “The work was later commissioned by the Fight for Sight charity and, if successful, would have significantly improved the daily activities of those affected. However, during the work, it became quickly apparent that there was no suitable device for physical interactivity. This led to augmented reality becoming one of my main research interests.”
But just how safe is augmented reality? While Pokemon Go was a resounding success, it didn’t come without controversy. It was reported to have caused various accidents due to engrossed players not paying attention to their real-world surroundings.
Glasgow Central Station, for example, even went as far as to advise caution via its electronic billboards.
“Unfortunately, society will always need to adapt to new technology,”
Ryan says. “The problems associated with Pokemon Go, for example, are more down to the users not giving the real-world environment their highest priority.
“As the technology develops, society will need to learn the restraints for its usage, while keeping safety at the forefront of their minds. Developers are introducing safeguards. Even Pokemon Go has one where, if the player is travelling too quickly, the game assumes they are in a car and won’t work. This is a learning process for both society and industry as the technology develops.”