There was a full house at Newcastle Arts Centre on a sunny but cold May evening where Sphere Network members were treated to a real insight into the present-day sci fi of augmented and virtual reality. We started with a bit of jargon busting from Hedgehog Lab‘s Shaun Allen, who explained that the term ‘XR’, Extended Reality, was coined to encompass all real-and-virtual combined environments and human-machine interactions. There is a convergence of reality technologies as virtual environments become more important in all walks of life.
The importance of visualisation
The potential of virtual environments became evident 15 years ago when virtual 3D world Second Life was launched. Shaun recalled setting up an island in SecondLife in 2008 and experimenting with the interconnection of real and virtual experiences. They streamed live gigs on a virtual Quayside on the island, and hosted a collaborative Get Carter film event with the Tyneside Cinema which had more engagement in Second Life than in the city. Very early on it became evident that there was a real commercial need for this type of interaction. In 2010 they were asked to produce a visualisation for a pitch, which the company won, crediting the strength of the medium in conveying the business concept. Later, a representation of a proposed school building was commissioned. Shaun explained that Second Life islands had a limited footprint at ground level, but considerable height. The model hung in virtual thin air above the island, and he found it odd to see the finished building on land.
Augmented and virtual reality tech for mass adoption outside the Second Life environment has not quite reached the level of sophistication that can be achieved within, but it is getting closer. Shaun covered some of the technical frustrations of developing effective extended realities, in particular the care that must be taken to remove barriers for end users. Consumers are not Unity experts- they need to experience to be seamless so that they can focus on the content. He also mentioned the compromise at proof of concept level where some detail (for instance accurate 3D shadowing) has to be sacrificed for speed of delivery, causing all the designers in the room to wince in sympathy.
Removing barriers for a seamless user experience
Bringing artefacts to life in an immersive experience is a fantastic way to understand the big picture, and with the tech showcase from Lampix we were treated to a great demonstration of immersion without barriers. Lampix specialises in tabletop augmented reality, removing the barriers of headset or smartscreen. The technology is a step removed from the user, dressed up as an lamp. It reads and interprets the things it illuminates and allows the user to interact. This can be applied to the simple recognition of trigger items in the memory – describing the makeup of a foodstuff, displaying a cocktail menu from a series of coasters, detailing an item for sale. Excitingly, it also allows for collaborative working. A document could be projected and marked up by a remote team in real time, removing the need for file sharing. This technology is at an early stage with extraordinary potential, and the discussion around possible applications was enthusiastic.
Shaun Allan (Hedgehog Lab), Dzmitry Varhan (Lampix), Marianne Whitfield (Sphere Network) and Tricia Lall (Lampix)
Applications of extended realities
There is already a trend towards the use of realities in high end retail, where time is a constraint but money is not. This encompasses virtual sales environments where the buyer does not have to be in the same location as the product or vendor, augmented reality applications to answer the age old question ‘how will this look in my room?’ and counter-top Lampix AR to explore things like cosmetic ranges. Commercially, engineering has followed in the footsteps of the designers of the floating school, developing simulations for walk-around of heavy machinery. Entertainment, however, is at the forefront, and we are looking forward to experiencing the Stephenson’s Rocket VR experience at the Discovery Museum, as part of the Great Exhibition of the North. Smaller museum artefacts might be well served by Lampix’s tabletop AR, The discussion ranged around multiple potential applications of the technology we saw this evening, from museums and education to treatment of ageing and dementia, through remote collaboration and shared experiences.