Move over virtual reality, researchers at Rensselear Polytechnic Institute are taking spatially augmented reality to the next level with "dynamic projection surfaces." The system moves projected images out into the real world, enabling multiple users to interact with their physical and virtual environments simultaneously.
TROY, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES REUTERS - Move any of these surfaces and it becomes clear that what you're seeing is a projected image overlaid on a real life object. It's called spatially augmented reality and it's the latest technology being used by researchers at Rensselear Polytechnic Institute to develop video games, learning tools and even disaster response systems.
Spatially augmented reality is the newest generation technology to evolve from virtual reality, but is quite different. Where virtual reality involved one user entering into a make shift world, spatially augmented reality takes the display and pushes it out into the real world for multiple users to interact with at the same time.
Using cameras, multiple projectors and laser pointers, Barbara Cutler, an assistant professor of computer science, has developed a dynamic projection system that alters the appearance of physical objects and allows multiple users to simultaneously track and manipulate the projected imagery to help make sense of and manipulate data.
"You can step into an environment where all the surfaces in the room are available to be projected on. We can put data on those surfaces. You can move those surfaces around and wherever that surface lands you can put data on that surface. This can be used for architectural visualization, those surfaces can form the walls of your room, it can be used for medical visualization - we can put data on that surface and as you pull that surface around you'll see different information being displayed and then we can also start to interact with the display on the surface," Cutler said.
While other developments have used projections and movie screen like surfaces to alter reality, Cutler says these environments have been static, using a single projector pointing at a fixed object.
"What's different about our environment is that you can push the walls around during the simulation. Once a wall has been moved we detect that camera above the scene, so we detected that a wall has moved and now we need to figure out which projector, because we have multiple projectors surrounding the room, can see that surface the best and isn't occluded by another surface. This is handled by a small network of computers and they determine amongst themselves which projector can best see the surface," she said.
Cutler uses the system in some of her classes and says the benefits are multidimensional. Students dictate the pace of lessons and are empowered to change the parameters of a simulation. They are also able to point to features when asking questions, making complex data sets more easily understandable.
Initially, the spatially augmented reality project was envisioned to be used for architectural daylighting, acting as a full size mock up space where an architect and client could visually see the flow pattern of light and could interact and visualize the space together. Cutler is now collaborating with civil engineers on a new project that would use dynamically projected surfaces to better respond to disasters such as a levee breach.
"You have a bunch of complex systems say in New York or North Carolina and different levels of expertise about the water, the sewer, the electrical grid and some disaster has taken out that system. In order to bring things back together again you are going to need to have experts from different fields come together. And they are not used to working together and may not be familiar with each other's visualizations or the networks. And we'd like to visualize these things on top of each other so that we can help them do the best planning about what system should be repaired," Cutler said.
The project is still in development but it looks like Cutler's simple hardware and complex interactive systems will soon make virtual reality a thing of the past.