When, in 2014, Facebook acquired smart glasses manufacturer Oculus from its 22-year-old owner, Palmer Luckey, the whole world became interested in virtual reality. If Mark Zuckerberg was willing to pay two billion dollars to further develop and utilise the brainchild of a young nerd, this had to be about something revolutionary.
The difference between virtual and augmented reality
A user of virtual reality (VR) puts on a headset that blocks the physical environment from her field of vision and enables her to immerse herself seamlessly in a three-dimensional virtual world. Everything is possible there. The user experiences the sensation of leaping and running, or riding and flying. She sees realistic scenery and events and hears voices coming from the right direction. If a virtual application is well enough implemented, the user can even mistake it for the real world.
A user of augmented reality (AR) sees and experiences the real, everyday world, but uses a mobile phone or light, Google Glass-type smart glasses to obtain useful additional information on what she sees. The information generated in the user’s line of vision can be text, digital images, computer animated 3D models, game content or expert advice.
Image processing and machine vision
VTT Research Professor Caj Södergård explains that computer graphics and image processing lies at the heart of virtual reality.
“Computer graphics are used to create three-dimensional environments, colours and shadows, based on which we can explore how surfaces reflect light sources. In addition, objects and creatures can be set in motion using animation technology. Videos are typically shot from multiple angles (360-degree video). Using acceleration sensors and gyroscopes, the headset senses the direction of the user’s view so that when she turns her head her field of vision moves accordingly within the virtual landscape. In addition, spatial audio comes from the precise direction in which something is happening,” says Södergård.
“In the case of augmented reality, machine vision accounts for much more of the experience,” adds Principal Scientist Charles Woodward.
“It is important to know exactly where the user is looking in order to provide her with digital information related to just that object. The machine vision technology involved is called camera tracking and is one of VTT’s special areas of expertise,” says Woodward.
A cityscape can be augmented with location information, such as photographs of historical events. See the video here.
Smart glasses force their way onto the market
Caj Södergård says that consumers can already buy wireless smart glasses from online stores for just a few hundred euros.
“Retailing for around 150 euros, Samsung Gear VR headsets work with a smartphone. The phone receives an image stream from a server, processes it in real time and creates a stereo image on the two lenses of the device. There are similar products for other smartphones. Facebook’s Oculus Rift glasses retail for 599 dollars. Oculus Rift requires a fast computer to function well,” Södergård says.
Google has provided schools with free-of-charge, smartphone-based cardboard glasses, which can be used for virtual trips abroad during lessons. Google does not intend to profit from these cardboard glasses, but is developing applications for them.
Frantic device development is also underway in the world of augmented reality. The industry is consolidating as Apple and other major players have bought leading AR firms.
“The key driver in the AR sector is transparent smart glasses through which the user can see the real world via lenses onto which digital information is projected. When wearing video smart glasses, on the other hand, the user sees the world through a video image,” Charles Woodward says.
“Computer graphics and image processing lies at the heart of virtual reality,” says Research Professor Caj Södergård.
VR applications for different sectors
In the consumer sector, virtual applications are being developed for entertainment, particularly 3D games.
In BtoB, they are mainly being used for training and coaching. Flight simulators were among the first applications. The shipping industry uses steering simulators and nuclear power plants use control simulators. Simulators are also making their way into the world of car driving instruction.
In addition, virtual applications are being used for training in industry. For example, the control panel of a forestry machine can be replicated in virtual space, where a driver can practice the use of complex machinery. VR glasses are not used in these simulators – the landscape is shown on large screens.
“Psychologists have used virtual applications to treat phobias related to confined or high places.
Fear-inducing situations can be simulated very realistically using virtual technology,” says Södergård.
“The construction industry forms a group of users every bit as large as the education and training sectors. Virtual space plans can give an authentic impression of how a building will look,” Woodward continues.
Expertise in many industrial domains can be found in VTT, since it is a multidisciplinary institution. VTT’s virtual applications for industry are being developed especially at VTT Tampere location.
A pioneer in augmented reality
VTT focuses on industrial applications in its AR research. Up to half of the turnover of Finland’s large, listed steel sector companies is based on maintenance activities. Getting maintenance information to the devices of service engineers at the right time will be big business in the future, and VTT aims to be on board.
“We are developing AR techniques for meeting the maintenance needs of space stations, alongside organisations such as the European Space Agency, the ESA,” Woodward says.
Augmented reality tends to be viewed as part of the Internet of Things. It is often thought that the main application involves projecting 3D data about industrial machinery into a user’s field of vision, but Woodward explains that VTT is taking a longer view of the issue.
“We have explored how an entire building automation system or a building’s maintenance manual can be interactively displayed on the maintenance person’s mobile device. This is about a huge market in which we are pioneers.”
“We are also among the first in the world to have applied a city planning based on AR visualisation to municipal decision-making. Decision-making authorities have used the application at a building site to see how it will look when finished.”
“AR machine vision technology is one of VTT’s special areas of expertise,” says
Principal Scientist Charles Woodward.
Visions of the future
Charles Woodward points out that, while virtual reality is bigger business than augmented reality, the relationship could be reversed if AR smart glasses become more common.
“It is estimated that the VR and AR sectors will have a combined value of 150 billion dollars by 2020. Four-fifths of this will be based on augmented reality and one-fifth on virtual reality,” says Woodward.
Woodward foresees the widespread adoption of AR over the next 5–10 years. In the future, facial recognition will be used for purposes such as identifying every person one has ever met and viewing information on them.
Mixed Reality Telepresence
A good example of what the future of the 3D Internet holds can be seen in the form of VTT’s Mixed Reality Telepresence application, which combines virtual and augmented reality in an unusual way.
VTT has demonstrated the app for the IBM Corporation in the US, which used to organise Second Life virtual seminars. The speaker and event could be presented virtually through Second Life, while the actual seminar was being held in New York, for example. Other people from around the world could participate in the seminar and their avatars were able to communicate with each other.
VTT created a pilot application for IBM, based on which real people used AR smart glasses, through which they could see the Second Life universe as well as the real world. Using VTT’s application, real people were able to see their avatars in the same conference room as themselves. When they gestured with their hands and moved their head to different directions, the same occurred in the Second Life projection, creating a seamless, bi-directional experience.
Mixed Reality Telepresence is VTT’s second most watched YouTube video of all time. See https://youtu.be/DNB0_c-5TSk.