I read about Foldit in Wired US yesterday, a game that takes the foundations laid by SETI@home, which uses thousands of computers’ idle time to decode frequencies from Space, and crowdsources solutions to the protein folding problems that are currently baffling the smartest machines in the world.
The difference with Foldit is that it’s not PC idle time that is tapped into here, but players’ idle time. There is no algorithm that can yet match humans’ depth perception; natural ability to recognise patterns; and see causal links in their actions. These traits make us humans the ideal CPU to solve these ‘protein-puzzles’:
Foldit provides a series of tutorials in which the player manipulates simple protein-like structures, and a periodically updated set of puzzles based on real proteins. The application displays a graphical representation of the protein’s structure which the user is able to manipulate with the aid of a set of tools.
As the structure is modified, a “score” is calculated based on how well-folded the protein is, based on a set of rules. A list of high scores for each puzzle is maintained. Foldit users may create and join groups, and share puzzle solutions with each other; a separate list of group high scores is maintained.
Indeed, the creators report that groups working together have led to breakthroughs not matched by either individuals or heavy-duty computing power. It is the power of the engaged-masses that the Baker Lab, research team behind the game are hoping will bring forth potential cures for HIV/AIDS, Cancer and Alzheimer’s.
The Internet, or specifically the World Wide Web, requires a limited virtuality in order to do its job. The shallow immersion offered to us by our computer screens actually serves our needs very well, since the Internet’s role in our lives is to connect, store and present information in accessible, searchable, scannable, and consistent form for millions of users to access simultaneously, to be dived in and out of quickly or to surround ourselves in the information we want. The naturally-immersive VR takes us partway towards Mobile AR, but its influence stops at the (admittedly profound) concept of real-time interaction with 3D digital images. What the Internet does is bring information to us, but VR forces us to go to it.
This is a function of the Mixed Reality Scale, and the distance of each from The Real. The closer we can bring artefacts from The Virtual to The Real, the more applicable these can be in our everyday lives. The self-sufficient realm of The Virtual does not require grounding in physical reality in order to exist, whereas the Internet and other MR media depend on The Real to operate. AR is the furthest that a virtual object can be ‘stitched into’ our reality, and in doing so we exploit our power in this realm to manipulate and interact with these digital elements to suit our own ends, as we currently do with the World Wide Web.
The wide-ranging entertainment resources offered by the Internet are having a profound effect on real-world businesses, a state of flux that Mobile AR could potentially exploit. There is a shift in the needs of consumers of late that is forcing a change in the ways that many blue-chip organisations are handling their businesses: Mobile data carriers (operators), portals, publishers, content owners and broadcasters are all seeking new content types to face up to the threat of VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) – which is reducing voice traffic; and Web TV/ Internet – reducing (reduced?) TV audiences, particularly in the youth market.
T-Mobile, for example, seeks to improve on revenues through offering unique licensed mobile games, themes, ringtones and video-clips on their T-Zones Mobile Internet Portal; NBC’s hit-series ‘Heroes’ is the most downloaded show on the Internet, forcing NBC to offer exclusive online comics on their webpage, seeking to recoup advertising revenue losses through lacing the pages of these comics with advertising. Mobile AR represents a fresh landscape for these businesses to mine. It is no surprise, then, that some forward-thinking AR developers are already writing software specifically for the display of virtual advertisement billboards in built-up city areas (T-Immersion).
The Internet has changed the way we receive information about the world around us. This hyper-medium has swallowed the world’s information and media content, whilst continuing to enable the development of new and exciting offerings exclusive to the desktop user. The computing capacity required to use the Internet has in the past constrained the medium to the desktop computer, but in the ‘Information Age’ the World Wide Web is just that: World Wide.
Presently, most AR research is concerned with live video imagery and it’s processing, which allows the addition of live-rendered 3D digital images. This new augmented reality is viewable through a suitably equipped device, which incorporates a camera, a screen and a CPU capable of running specially developed software. This software is written by specialist software programmers, with knowledge of optics, 3D-image rendering, screen design and human interfaces. The work is time consuming and difficult, but since there is little competition in this field, the rare breakthroughs that do occur are as a result of capital investment: something not willingly given to developers of such a nascent technology.
What is exciting about AR research is that once the work is done, its potential is immediately seen, since in essence it is a very simple concept. All that is required from the user is their AR device and a real world target. The target is an object in the real world environment that the software is trained to identify. Typically, these are specially designed black and white cards known as markers:
These assist the recognition software in judging viewing altitude, distance and angle. Upon identification of a marker, the software will project or superimpose a virtual object or graphical overlay above the target, which becomes viewable on the screen of the AR device. As the device moves, the digital object orients in relation to the target in real-time:
The goal of some AR research is to free devices from markers, to teach AR devices to make judgements about spatial movements without fixed reference points. This is the cutting edge of AR research: markerless tracking. Most contemporary research, however, uses either marker-based or GPS information to process an environment.
Marker-based tracking is suited to local AR on a small scale, such as the Invisible Train Project (Wagner et al., 2005) in which players collaboratively keep virtual trains from colliding on a real world toy train track, making changes using their touch-screen handheld computers:
GPS tracking is best applied to large scale AR projects, such as ARQuake (Thomas et al, 2000), which exploits a scale virtual model of the University of Adelaide and a modified Quake engine to place on-campus players into a ‘first-person-shooter’. This application employs use of a headset, wearable computer, and a digital compass, which offer the effect that enemies appear to walk the corridors and ‘hide’ around corners. Players shoot with a motion-sensing arcade gun, but the overall effect is quite crude:
More data input would make the game run smoother and would provide a more immersive player experience. The best applications of AR will exploit multiple data inputs, so that large-scale applications might have the precision of marker-based applications whilst remaining location-aware.
Readers of this blog will be aware that AR’s flexibility as a platform lends applicability to a huge range of fields:
Current academic work uses AR to treat neurological conditions: AR-enabled projections have successfully cured cockroach phobia in some patients (Botella et al., 2005);
There are a wide range of civic and architectural uses: Roberts et al. (2002) have developed AR software that enables engineers to observe the locations of underground pipes and wires in situ, without the need schematics
AR offers a potentially rich resource to the tourism industry: the Virtuoso project (Wagner et al., 2005) is a handheld computer program that guides visitors around an AR enabled gallery, providing additional aural and visual information suited to each artefact;
The first commercial work in the AR space was far more playful, however: AR development in media presentations for television has led to such primetime projects as Time Commanders (Lion TV for BBC2, 2003-2005) in which contestants oversee an AR-enabled battlefield, and strategise to defeat the opposing army, and FightBox (Bomb Productions for BBC2, 2003) in which players build avatars to compete in an AR ‘beat-em-up’ that is filmed in front of a live audience; T-Immersion (2003- ) produce interactive visual installations for theme parks and trade expositions; other work is much more simple, in one case the BBC commissioned an AR remote-control virtual Dalek meant for mobile phones, due for free download from BBC Online:
The next entry in this series is a case study in AR development. If you haven’t already done so, please follow me on Twitter or grab an RSS feed to be alerted when my series continues.