Virtual and Augmented Reality

Devices and target applications


Virtual and Augmented Reality represent growing and very promising technologies. Being able to create completely new environments, as well as adding new features to the real world, open up an incredible amount of possibilities for applications in almost every field.

The simplest way to access this technology is the smartphone. The mass market device allows the user to experience this new technology for free and in a familiar manner. Unfortunately, the limited size of the screen represents a great limitation in terms of immersion, thus reducing the overall experience.
This is a big issue for Virtual Reality, where the feeling of actually being in a virtual space is the key.

Augmented Reality, on the other hand, can be effective even within a small screen. Using the camera, apps like Quiver can project on the screen the real world with additional features. The potentiality in this sense is huge. From the technical domain, to marketing and culture, adding extra information to real object can help the user better understating what he is seeing.
In Amsterdam, an AR application is being developed to show citizens and visitor how new buildings will look like, as well as reconstruction of old building to understand the city growth along the centuries.
Applications are also being developed to show the path and status of underground pipes for maintenance purposes.
The smartphone then provides an optimal platform for all those application that aim at providing helpful information in on-field situations. Although not many currently exist, it is reasonable to think that in the close future there will be a substantial increase of such products on the app market.

In 2014 Google came out with Google Cardboard. Google Cardboard is just a cardboard head-mounted box with some lenses designed to accommodate a smartphone and become a full 3D viewer.
With approximately $25 then, the smartphone overcome its size limit and becomes a full VR visor. With 90 degrees field of view it provides a satisfactory sense of immersion that has been exploited by many application makers.
Since interaction is limited due to a lack of external sensors, most application resolve around the exploration of the virtual world with little action available. Most noticeably, the user can only change his orientation, while movement is not detected. Such features make it perfect for applications such as 360 video players, where the user can look around the scene but, due to the way they are filmed, cannot move in it.
Google Cardboard will probably not become the VR revolutionary system, but it represents the best ambassador of this innovative technology to the masses for his cheap price and ease of use.

In contrast with Google Cardboard, many companies have started developing full visors specifically developed for VR. HTC VIVE is one of the most successful. Made up of one visor, two handheld devices and two base stations, it gives the user a whole new level of interaction with respect to the Cardboard.
The fixed stations are used to detect movement, thus allowing the user to move around the space and explore it from different points of view, while the handheld devices provide a more effective interaction.
On the other hand, the fixed setup and the cabling required by the visor impose serious limitations on the kind of usage.
Consequently, VIVE represent an optimal platform for games and applications where there is an enclosed space to explore or an object to analyze in depth, such as 3D models of architecture or machinery, for purpose of analysis, coherency checks and validation.

Talking about visors, some words must be spent on the Microsoft HoloLens. The HoloLens is in fact an Augmented Reality visor, where a projector displays extra information on a transparent screen.
Contrary to HTC VIVE, it is a stand-alone device that does not require external hardware or computational power. Here potential applications are limitless, since it combines the portability of the smartphone with the immersivity of a visor.
The key of the HoloLens is an extremely well performing object recognition. Gestures and hand movement are easily recognized by the system and are used for interaction, while the developer do not need to worry about recognizing walls, since the API immediately provide the position and dimension of any flat surface. Moreover, it can remember and recognize places, thus increasing potential application features.

The HoloLens have an immense potential for everyday use. Unfortunately, its size, and style will probably not make it the next fashion item. The price is also an issue ($3’000 - $5’000) and in fact Microsoft only sells them to business and developers. Due to this, each application will probably remain confined to a specific field, but it is hard to think about a field where it would not come as helpful. From education purposes, where blood and veins may be represented on real body, to military uses, data visualization and much more.
Having said this, there are only very few applications available now, and most of them do not really exploit the potentiality at most, using flat surfaces as support planes but without recognizing the feature of each one. Consequently, we can expect, or develop, a great deal of applications coming in the next few years, both for business and dedicated amateurs.

Finally, there is a completely different kind of “device”.
The state-of-the-art CAVE2 VR Hybrid System takes a different approach to Virtual Reality. It is made of 72 1MP LCD screen mounted on 4 levels in a circular shape. The inner space can host up to 25 people that can simultaneously experience an immersion into a different world. Depth is given by standard 3D glasses, with one “chief” providing the current point of view. The key difference with respect to standard visors is that the user is no longer isolated from others. This allows for completely different sort of applications focused mostly towards collaboration. Moreover, the screen can also be used as one big monitor, thus enhancing standard presentation methods in 2D.

It is not hard to think of needs that this device can satisfy. From education, to data visualization and presentation, there are an infinite amount of field that would enjoy the mix of collaboration and virtual reality offered by CAVE2.
However, there are some serious limitations which must be taken into considerations. The large size, its complexity and most of all its price, approximately $2 million, make it a very hard product to commercialize. It is realistic then, that its application will remain contained in the research field, or some very high-end business application. For instance, it has recently been used by the Medicine department of UIC to visualize and better understand the nerves connections in the brain. Having said this, it is reasonable to assume that if the designers manage to substantially reduce the price, CAVE2 will become a common feature of many workspaces, where it can enhance productivity and collaboration in a substantial manner.

In conclusion, there are now available many different devices for Virtual and Augmented Reality. Although each one has its own limitation, they have brought V&A Reality beyond the research phase and it has now become a useful technology in many fields. In fact, although devices must continue to improve and get cheaper, what is currently missing now are the applications for such devices, that can transform them from specialized to everyday tools, thus paving the way towards a more widespread diffusion.

Sept. 9th, 2017


Note: This article was written as an homework for course CS 491 – Virtual and Augmented Reality, held by professor Johnson at UIC.