With the popularity of augmented reality games, virtual reality headsets, and bionic body parts, interest has never been greater in technologies that blur the lines between the digital and physical worlds.
AR brings computer-generated graphics to life, superimposing near lifelike, digitally processed images on what the person actually sees in the real world. VR immerses people inside virtual worlds that mimic the real one or fictitious ones. Body implants, prosthetics, brain-machine interfaces, and other human augmentation technologies, combined with VR applications, can restore sensory experiences lost by some people with disabilities. And the senses of able-bodied people can be enhanced.
All three emerging fields face common challenges. These include the lack of collaboration among companies developing the technologies; gaps in technical standards, if those standards even exist; and a lack of content, to say nothing of killer apps.
Taking on those and other issues is the job of the year-old IEEE Digital Senses Initiative. The DSI was launched last year by the IEEE Future Directions Committee, the organization’s R&D arm.
“Our goal is to facilitate disruptive innovations that make it difficult or nearly impossible to distinguish between virtual worlds and real worlds,” says IEEE Senior Member Yu Yuan, the initiative’s chair. Yuan is CEO of Senses Global Corp., a tech startup in Shenzhen, China, focused on developing new technologies around VR, AR, and human augmentation.
The initiative bundled together the three fields because they all involve technologies that “hack” human senses, Yuan says.
“The DSI is dedicated to advancing technologies that capture and reproduce the real world or synthesize the virtual world, and add the stimuli of human senses,” he says. “Our scope includes combining reproduced or synthesized stimuli with natural stimuli and helping humans or machines to perceive and respond to them.”
AR, VR, and human augmentation technologies are all growing fields, he notes, but the lack of collaboration among participating entities has become a barrier to development and widespread adoption.
“IEEE is perfectly positioned to unite industry and academia to achieve such collaboration,” Yuan says.
NEW AND IMPROVED
All three technologies have been around for decades, but early applications were lacking, according to Yuan, because their virtual stimuli did not feel real enough and the overall experience was not rich enough.
“That’s why market growth in these fields actually stopped back in the 1990s,” he says. But the technologies have been improved to the point where “people now feel some of the devices are enjoyable enough to wear and use,” he continues. “And now they’re patient enough to wait for further improvements.”
AR games and VR headsets made inroads this year. Pokémon Go, the location-based, augmented-reality game, was all the rage, with more than 500 million downloads as of September. Market analyst CCS Insight estimates that the total VR device market will be worth US $1.5 billion this year and climb to $11 billion by 2020.
Because AR allows for a mix of real and virtual objects, Yuan predicts we’ll see new types of services and business models in retail, transportation, manufacturing, construction, and other industries.
“AR will change how we interact with the environment and the services around us,” he says.
VR applications will most likely be widely used first in live broadcasts of sporting events.
The technology also could prove beneficial to people with disabilities. “Those who can’t run or jump in the real world will be able to do so in the virtual world,” Yuan says. “They’ll also be able to travel virtually to places they could never visit in person.”
And VR could be used to restore and enhance a person’s senses. For example, realistic haptic interfaces could let people “touch” virtual objects that feel similar to the real things.
ACTIVITIES UNDER WAY
The DSI has been busy during the past year on a number of fronts.
The initiative has been sponsoring several IEEE Standards Association Industry Connections groups to propose technical standards in the three areas.
The Augmented Reality in the Oil/Gas/Electric Industry Group is exploring how head-mounted displays, head-up displays, and other applications might benefit the three fields. The Smart Glasses Roadmap Group is working to overcome hurdles blocking the adoption of smartglasses in a number of markets and applications.
The 3-D Body Processing Group is devising standards for the capture, processing, and use of 3-D data on various devices so they can communicate with one another and transfer information. The group also plans to tackle security, privacy, metrics, communications and sharing protocols, and methods for assessing results.
The DSI is also working with the Industry Connections program to form a Digital Senses Alliance, which would foster cross-industry and cross-disciplinary collaborations to identify gaps in technologies and standards.
The lack of compelling and far-reaching content for AR and VR is another pain point for industry, according to Yuan. “Everyone says that content is king, and we all need it,” he says, “but developing it has been a struggle.”
Training content developers is key. To that end, the initiative has partnered with VR First and the Uniquedu Education Group. VR First provides state-of-the-art facilities around the world for VR creators. The DSI and VR First are working to build learning labs in engineering universities and centers of excellence in industrial parks. Uniquedu, headquartered in Beijing, is creating massive open online courses on developing AR and VR content—which IEEE plans to offer.
Other educational activities under way include webinars, IEEE Distinguished Lecturers series, VR video competitions for students, and hackathons where participants can produce working prototypes.
Several publications are in the works as well. One is a yearly report covering upcoming advances. Another will highlight best practices for filmmakers and game developers.
To get the word out about its efforts, the initiative is developing a promotional video using VR technology. And it has begun two mobile app projects focused on expanding the reach of IEEE events. The Conference AR app will use the technology to help attendees at IEEE conferences find meeting rooms and exhibit booths, and superimpose over the attendees’ facial images their names, employers, and technical interests, Yuan says. The Meeting in VR app will help attendees of teleconferences and meetings held via Skype, Google Hangout, or WebEx to collaborate virtually.
“The next generation of the technologies should create virtual worlds that are so real that a person won’t be able to tell the difference,” Yuan says. “This will be the ultimate experience that AR and VR could provide.”
This article appears in the December 2016 print issue as “Blurring the Lines Between Virtual and Real Worlds.”
This article is part of our December 2016 special issue on digital senses.