A new digital vision

Gareth Tissington | 20 Apr 2015 | Comments

Digital eyewear and augmented reality will, in time, blur the lines between reality and the virtual world. Having the power of vast amounts of digital data augmented onto our everyday lives will change the way we live and work, meaning we can get context and location based realtime information as a live stream added to the world we see around us.

We are just at the start of computer vision and augmented reality making a real difference. Yet virtual reality is being heralded as the “next big thing” with Oculus Rift being acquired as a “social tool” by Facebook and touted as a “gateway to experience anything” by Mark Zuckerberg. Mobile phone makers are realising the power their devices hold, but can we take this virtual reality boom and apply it to real life?

We are already using virtual reality in our projects, giving both designers and clients the ability to walk around buildings and designs before construction is even planned out, let alone begun. This is just an extension of the work we have been pushing through the use of BIM, however the sense of depth and perspective virtual reality gives the viewer allows for design reviews and planning like nothing ever has before. Being able to plot the physical space that it takes to retrofit complex engineering projects, see how the time of day affects the light in a manhole, or even work out the visibility through lines of sight before the project is even started – are all ways in which our engineers now solve what used to be time consuming problems.

In the boom the internet was perceived as a global tool. Eventually people realised that they needed it to find products and services that they could access locally as well. Now we face a different challenge, we need to realise that there will be a blend between the virtual (global) world and the physical (local) world. By creating hardware that links with our already location-aware handheld devices, we can recognise physical objects, and project or superimpose information on our view of the world. Then we achieve a world where big data can help at us at every turn, literally.

Computer vision allows devices to extract information from realtime images and the surrounding area. This, linked with GPS locations systems can help a device recognise where you are and what is around you, which could provide a perfect solution for in-car heads-up displays giving directions, traffic info, alternative routes, points of interest and even recognising and identifying hazards – source: Times article (paywall). It could even tell your car to activate the brakes because it recognised a motorbike indicator or hand signal from a cyclist you had missed.

I see augmented reality as a much more important prospect than virtual reality, and it seems as though a lot of the big players in the industry do as well. The Microsoft HoloLens will offer the ability to wear glasses that directly interact with your surroundings allowing you to move the TV screen from one wall to another as you move through the house, and play virtual chess on any horizontal surface you are near. Or Magic Leap, following their recent investment from Google, have been working on a “Dynamic Digitised Lightfield Signal” which claims to project a digital light field around a user’s eyes. Magic Leap’s CEO Rony Abovitz describes it as “biomimetic, meaning it respects how we function naturally as humans.” Abovitz describes virtual reality as dangerous and having the “potential to cause neurologic change”. So instead of creating a false world, Magic Leap proposes creating a “true replication of visual reality”.

Consumer-tech aside, within engineering, design and architectural companies, the power of these smart glasses is virtually endless. The ability to “look through” walls and see the inner workings of areas difficult to get close to, is obvious. On site, being able to view the proposed development in all its construction phases over time would be a powerful feature. Through the use of digital eyeware a wealth of information can be stored and linked to physical products in the building. When you look at a water pump, for example, the last service information and audit could pop up over the product, which can then be linked to the service manual and even a step-by-step guide to show how to dismantle and repair the elements.

Considering the pace of development, it’s interesting to consider the likely impact on the changing role of the engineer in the augmented age. Will this lead to engineers being buried behind CAD, for example, and BIM software linking data in the virtual world and allowing almost anyone to check and maintain the assets in the physical world? Or will the impact be even more pronounced, with engineers and designers seeing their visions in the real world before they have even finished the design – making real-time contextual tweaks that improve their plans and demonstrating these alterations to clients and other stakeholders possibly before the job has even been commissioned?