Augmented reality (AR) has dominated tech news for the past year. New advances in the field have been heralded as game-changers for people of every walk of life.
It’s not hard to see why. AR’s potential applications are about as limitless as human creativity, and more and more thinkers and industry leaders have discussed potential uses for the technology, ranging from remote technical support to the creation of a new breed of immersive video games.
But What Exactly Is AR?
AR itself can be a tricky concept to grasp.
Contributing to the confusion that some newcomers field is the ease with which it’s often mixed up with a similar-sounding, but intrinsically separate cousin: virtual reality. Both industries have become increasingly notorious of late, and it’s important to have some understanding of how they differ.
The two are perhaps both understood as two points on a sliding scale that runs from completely unaltered reality to an entirely virtual one. The first point would be everyday life – the world that we normally experience around us. The second would be an totally digital environment that we could interact with. Video games are a great example of virtual worlds, though many fall short of the “reality” label, given that we can only interact with them to a narrow extent.
Virtual reality lies on that far end of the spectrum. The best example of current VR technology is the Oculus Rift, the funky, head-mounted, immersive goggles that you’ve likely seen scaring the heck out of anyone brave enough to watch a roller coaster simulation on them. People wearing a Rift can look around the digital worlds that it inhabits, and influence them using controllers or, sometimes, their own bodies.
Augmented reality is closer to the middle of our theoretical scale. AR devices still function in the everyday world, but augment it by inserting digital elements. For example, in one innovative use of Google Glass headset, a reconstructive surgeon in New York made virtual markings on a patient’s body that a medical team in Lebanon could see on their own Glasses and follow accordingly.
While the above instance was certainly a dramatic one, AR has the potential to be helpful on a much more day-to-day levels. The ability to attach digital information to objects encountered in the real world has an enormous range of possible use cases. Other branches of AR see the use of what might be called augmentative hardware – physical objects with digital integrations. Already, some researchers and inventors have begun to repurpose AR for use as an aid for blind and visually impaired individuals.
AR as a Tool for the Blind
One of the strangest, but most interesting pieces of novel fashion we got to see this year was something that inventor Anouk Wipprecht called a “Spider Dress.” Wipprecht’s creation consisted of a set of arachnid-inspired legs that sat on top of a wearer’s shoulders. The legs were attached to a small controlling computer that monitored their biometric data, including respiration rate, and also checked their surroundings for approaching people. On a calm wearer, the legs make inviting gestures to nearby people. However, if a wearer becomes anxious or upset – states detected by the dress’s sensors – the legs extend to ward off passerby.
Could this device help blind individuals? At the moment at least, probably not too much; it might make avoiding collisions a little easier, but likely wouldn’t make any larger impact.
However, it hints at the potential that augmented reality holds for vision challenged people. By monitoring both an individual, and that individual’s surroundings, the spider dress can take action to help its user out without being told to.
Imagine extending that principle to a simple sensor system to make up for damaged peripheral vision – that’s exactly what Darryl Adams, an Intel project manager, did. Adams suffers from Retinitis Pigmentosa, a progressive disease that eventually leads to sever visual impairment or blindness. During this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, he unveiled a product made to help him navigate his surroundings as his condition worsened.
Darryl’s invention is made of a network of 3D cameras and vibrating pads attached to a wearer’s body. When the cameras detect an incoming object, the pads facing that object vibrate, giving the wearer a heads-up to the change. It may not be full artificial sight, but the system works well enough to give even completely blind users an early alert to nearby people or objects.
The rapidly advancing abilities of computers to make sense of their visual surroundings could also prove key in providing blind individuals with new life-improving tech. Google’s recent release of their translation app’s new camera-based features served as a wake-up call to what even smartphone-level software is capable of. Users who have downloaded Google’s app can simply point their cameras at text to translate it to a different language – granted, text has to be printed and well-lit for the feature to work.
A company called OrCam has already brought these advanced capacities to a wearable designed for blind and visually-impaired people. Each OrCam is a small camera that attaches to a user’s glasses, where it scans their field of vision. Users can then use it to visually identify text, currency, traffic lights, and even the faces of friends, which the device will then read back to them via a bone-conduction speaker.
Other companies have decided to short cut the improvement of technology by simply using crowds of humans to provide help to smartphone users. Be My Eyes is currently the best example. Blind users of the app can point a camera at something, then receive assistance from sighted volunteers. This particular altruistic model already has a stated user base of over 100,000 volunteers and nearly 9,000 blind people.
Where augmented technologies go next is anyone’s guess. Continuing research in other fields devoted to repairing vision – such as the gradual improvement and adoption of artificial eyes, will likely figure into its future. However, impressive strides have already been made, and it’s hard not to feel excited about what comes next.