1 Definition and History of Augmented and Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality is defined by Kipper as “a completely artificial digital environment that uses computer hardware and software to create the appearance of a real environment to the user.” (Kipper, G.,2012, P. 22).

Augmented Reality in comparison is defined by Kipper (2012) as:

“A variation of a Virtual Environment (VE) or Virtual Reality (VR) as it is more commonly called. Virtual Reality technologies completely immerse a user inside a synthetic environment and while immersed, the user cannot see the world around him. In contrast Augmented Reality is taking digital or computer generated information, whether it be images, audio video and touch or haptic sensations and overlaying them over in (sic) a real-time environment” (P.18).

The origin of the term augmented reality is attributed by Parkin (Parkin, 2016) to an engineer from aerospace firm Boeing named Thomas Caudell. From this definition, it is for the consumer to see that Augmented Reality is a middle ground between the completely real and the completely synthetic. The term Virtual Reality is commonly attributed to Jaron Lanier (“Who coined”, n.d.). In Fuchs, the term “Virtual reality” is criticized for its lack of specificity and referenced as “an oxymoron” (Fuchs, P., P.5) presumably because a virtual object is implicitly not real. Fuchs takes umbrage at the term while also noting it has passed so firmly into common use to be pointless to attempt to change it.

Examples for augmented reality include Head Up Displays where information is provided in real time in the field of view or line of sight for a driver or pilot (Head up, n.d). Applying Augmented Reality to Heads Up Displays enhances a driver’s or pilot’s understanding of the events occurring in their path and allows improved decision making by augmenting the real world with digital information in near-real time. A seminal example which directly resulted in the creation of the term augmented reality was Thomas Caudell’s 1992 concept of glasses that enabled workers to see virtual labels and information while assembly a Boeing jet’s wiring (Parkin, 2016). Another recent and viral example of augmented reality is the Pokeman Go game (www.pokemongo.com). In this digital game the camera of a smart phone, together with its internal sensors, enables the player to search and find virtual creatures digitally placed in specific real geographic locations. The effect creates a virtual, digital scavenger hunt that is played on a global scale.

Augmented and Virtual Reality systems rely on several different types of hardware to represent a specific view and create the immersive experiences associated with the best practices of the technology. The hardware implementation requires, among other elements, a display that delivers images to the user and a processing unit which can digitally render the virtual elements of the delivered images in response to the physical actions of the user. Other hardware includes different sensors to monitor the position (geolocation) and motion of the user and/or their worn or held hardware. Such sensors must detect in near real time the absolute positioning and motion of the user or the user’s head position and eye gaze. For augmented reality, the ability to create a digital representation of the immediate environs of the user is also needed. As an example of Microsoft’s vision for augmented reality view Microsoft Hololens Promotional Video. For an example of the more slightly dystopian vision of AR view Keiichi Matsuda’s Hyper-Reality video.

The desire to create an illusion of immersion in a fabricated reality has early roots in Roman fresco murals of the “Second Style” meant to provide the viewer the sense of being in the place or event depicted (Roman wall painting styles). The later work of Robert Barker in 1787 (Boyle, 2013) was the first truly 360° imagery designed to create the sensations of being immersed wholly in another place. Barker’s goal of delivering an immersive experience through special lighting, viewing locations and purpose-built, round buildings proved so popular as to become a commercial success with imitators around the globe. These and other panorama allowed people to experience foreign lands and famous events in a time when travel was rare and dangerous. In the late 19th century, stereoscopes became very popular as they enabled viewers to see an image using two slightly different image perspectives of the same scene so that it appeared to be three dimensional. In 1939 William Gruber created a mass produced version of the stereoscope, known as the Viewmaster, which is still in production today. (Rossen, 2017)

The earliest example of what is more recognizable as today’s concept of virtual reality is the Link flight simulator for pilot training patented by Edwin Link in 1929. (Unknown, P.3). This device saw extensive use in preparing pilots during WWII and became an accepted tool in pilot training for civilian pilots as well. The early versions relied on musical instrument technology borrowed from pipe organs of the day, due in no small part to the inventor’s background working in his father’s piano and organ shop. (Unknown, P.3). While initially considered a novelty, the introduction of radio navigation and instrument flying brought its value for pilot training into widespread acceptance. This same innovation would be later applied to astronaut training as well.

In 1962, Martin Heilig designed a motorcycle simulator called Sensorama (Kipper, P. 7). This early example employed sounds, visuals, vibration and smell to deliver an immersive experience. In 1968, Ivan Sutherland’s head mounted system, dubbed “the Sword of Damacles”, was the first to provide six degree of freedom tracking. It was an optical see-through display allowing the user to see computer generated content while still seeing the room around him.

Consumer applications for virtual reality and augmented reality were introduced with great media hype. In the gaming world Sega’s VR(Unreleased-sega-vr) was developed and promoted heavily in the 1990’s but was never actually released as a product. These early systems suffered from a lack of sufficiently mature hardware technology. Its promise did bring about memorable arcade games from Virtuality like Dactyl Nightmare, a stand up shooting game and Total Destruction, a sit down stock car racing game. These games were short lived due to the expensive nature of their hardware . The release of Microsoft’s Kinect Gaming system in 2010 represented the next quantum step in interactive gaming that strove to immerse the gamer physically into the action and remove the ubiquitous hand-held controller as the input device to control an on-screen avatar (Stevens, 2010).

A graphical timeline for the notable events in history related to the developments of our current AR/VR ecosystems is provided in Figure 1.

Timeline for AR/VR development

AR VR Timeline

Figure 1 Timeline of Notable Events for AR/VR Development

Current Developments in AR/VR

The current state of development in Virtual and Augmented Reality is defined by advancements in fully immersive systems and in systems which blend digitally created artifacts with the user’s view of their proximate real environment.

Consider for example the recent success by Samsung with its VR Gear, Oculus with its Rift headset, and Microsoft’s Hololens. Each variant sets up different potential opportunities for its consumer use cases and requires different considerations to leverage its marketing potential. It’s important to parse those differences and also their potential convergence in the future.

Immersive VR enjoys the most attention currently and is represented by products like Oculus Rift, Samsung’s GearVR and Sony’s PSVR among others. In addition, Google’s Cardboard defined the lowest cost entry point to a simple VR experience. Its low effective price is predicated on the user already owning a suitable smartphone. Today’s market growth is very much driven by this class of device and its use for entertainment purposes with computer games, 360° video content and pornography.

Google’s Project Tango seeks to establish standards for AR in the tablet computer and smartphone marketplace. A Tango compliant hardware platform is embodied in Lenovo’s Phab2 Pro (Lenovo-Phab-2). This phone represents a significant advancement as it uses new sensing technology, known as Time-of-Flight (ToF) sensing, to be able to image the scene in the field of view in three dimensions with distance measurement data. The Lenovo and other similar AR capable smartphones have a limited maximum sensing range for their ToF sensors of approximately 5 meters.

One of the more exciting recent developments is the Microsoft Hololens. This AR headset demonstrates some of the state of the art technology and has leapfrogged all other previously released hardware platforms. Its use of advanced optical projection technologies, advanced sensing and custom embedded digital processing hardware open up many new possibilities for developers of augmented reality applications. Intel’s Project Alloy, from early press sneak previews, will seek to compete with Microsoft’s targeted applications and markets in the business, academic and professional realms. Apple too appears to be preparing a long range strategy for deploying AR/VR capabilities. While no public announcements about specific hardware have been made, recent interviews with Tim Cook, Apple CEO, indicate the company’s commitment to the technology is at the highest levels (appleinsider, n.d.).

Many tools for creating 360° content are already available from companies with a history of game development tools. The leader at present is Unity. Their aggressive support for new tools in support of VR and 360° video content editing is setting the benchmark. Other competitors in this space include Epic Games Unreal Engine, Maxon’s Cinema4D and Crytech’s CryEngine. There is a capable open source tool, Blender, which many professionals are using by extending and adapting it with custom Python code. A newcomer, but not to be underestimated entry, is Amazon with its Lumberyard tool. Amazon makes this available free to kick start VR content creation for its VR library.

Adobe, a perennial digital graphics content manipulation leader is also fielding new tools and additions to its standard bearer, Photoshop and Premiere, products to edit and deploy 360° content for VR and AR applications. Many Software Development Kit (SDK) providers also offer add-ons to handle specific aspects of VR and AR content creation. ARToolkit, LAYAR, Wikitude and Vuforio are among the reference SDK tools in use by professional developers, Dashwood’s 360VR Toolkit is compatible with Apple’s FinalCut Pro and Adobe Premiere Pro These tools allow professionals to extend their existing capability with those top tier editing tools into the 360° realm.

The ongoing announcements and product releases within this fast moving consumer product market continue to surprise even veteran technology watchers.

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