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AR Day in Stockholm

Patrik Johansson of Eskilstuna Municipality City Planning Office wearing the new Epson Moverio BT-200

Patrik Johansson of Eskilstuna Municipality City Planning Office wearing the new Epson Moverio BT-200

Sometimes I feel that Augmented Reality’s good name has been slightly tarnished and is often overused as a buzz word to promote applications which more often than not lack real substance or purpose. That’s why I was happy to see that topics such as usefulness, content, and measurability were frequently revisited during yesterday’s Augmented Reality seminar here in Stockholm organized by Atomer och Bitar. Last time held four years ago, it was the second time “Augmented Reality-dagen” (“the AR Day”) was organized in Stockholm, attracting some eight speakers and an auditorium of about 50 guests from various industries ranging from technical consultants to tourism offices with interests in the technology, its application, and the business it generates.

I am happy to see that the take on Augmented Reality seems to have matured since last time this event was held in 2010. I made the following observations which I think proves that:

Content: People are becoming aware that the most important part of an AR application is the content. It dictates the application’s usefulness, but also requires a lot of resources to research, compile and enter. People seem to agree on the fact that AR apps are more successful if they are focused on a particular task as opposed to using general browser-like apps. However, since content is an expensive part of the production, the discussions also touched on standardizing content such that it can be reused in several apps.

Usefulness: AR has no raison d’être by itself. Instead of focusing on the definition or AR, and whether an app is indeed an AR app according to Azuma’s three criteria, it’s more important for an app to be useful and to serve a purpose. Although most AR apps initialize tracking by identifying some picture or environment, the recognition algorithm by itself may be very useful and perhaps more intuitive to use. Google Glass is not AR according to Azuma’s definition, but the head-up display may still be very useful for certain applications. XMReality demoed a system where the expert’s hands were superimposed on the novice’s view. Although the hands were not registered in 3D, they still had many virtues which makes this system very useful, despite not being true AR.

Measurability: As AR moves away from being just a gimmick, measuring results becomes more important. Focusing on results also opens up discussions on expectations and actions to improve the result, i.e. promotion. Mobile Storytelling shared some results from their open air exhibition, a walk around the Skeppsholmen island in Stockholm: During two summer months, the app was downloaded 2 000 times. Practical issues, such as where foreign users can download large amount of media data, and how augmented objects are indicated, were also discussed. The advice is to set aside “half of the budget” for marketing campaigns.

While these were the most prominent topics, there were also other fascinating observations and recurring themes:

For instance, two demos touched on the fact that AR can be used to challenge the limitations of time and space. DING showed how extremely heavy machinery can be exhibited in a virtual form in business fairs. This means that it’s no longer necessary (if it ever were possible) to ship real world turbines and train car linkages to international trade shows, which saves a lot of money. Magisty showed how their brought constructors, developers, clients and investors out in the field with tablets and made the blueprints come to live. Magistry also use drones to capture panoramas of the view from windows in offices not yet built. Moreover, they found that their VR-apps were used also among the workers during the construction process. This was an unforeseen but interesting result.

It was also interesting to see how users of existing general AR content applications explained their projects with such enthusiasm that they indeed served as ambassadors for the particular app. Ineko, a company that offers print as well as creative services, displayed some projects using Aurasma. Once again, the labor behind good content was emphasized, and that the printed material still must be able to exist in its own right, without its augmentations.

Epson presented the newly launched see-through binocular AR-glasses Moverio BT-200. They now incorporates several onboard sensors, including a forward-facing camera. The BT-200 will only be released among developers, as the main purpose for Epson seems to be to collect developer feedback. The possibility to change to darker lenses is a nice and easy, and often overlooked, way to increase contrast. However, I am a bit concerned with the VGA resolution of the front-facing camera and the challenges to create a user-friendly eye-point calibration procedure. This project should be interesting to follow.

Lastly, Erik Lundström of Penny spoke about the upcoming launch of their new BM20 AR-glasses. They have a remarkable design in that the image generator and optics are very small and placed near the nose, not along the temple as in the case of most other glasses. The reason is that Penny’s customers within the defense industry require soldiers to maintain peripheral vision when using AR-glasses. Lundström also presented an impressive list of interesting projects, some quite varying, which Penny is involved in. How can he run so many specialized projects? The solution, Lundström says, is a network of individuals and companies with less than five employees, all sharing specialized efforts as if they were a larger company. Lundström founded this network to barter work hours with other startups at Västerås Science Park back in 2007, but the reach of the network has since then spread to collaborators in South Korea where technology students are encouraged to join this network if they want to choose AR as their career path.

When I received the invitation as a speaker at this event, I decided to use this opportunity to remind everyone that AR is about achieving the most natural interaction interface between man and machine such that interaction metaphors ultimately are not needed since the user is indeed interacting with real world objects. I also spent few slides to introduce new users to a vocabulary which I hope will serve as a useful taxonomy when they search for new material themselves. Using the new terminology I took a stab at explaining how tracking technologies differ and how this can be seen in various applications in popular apps. I was careful not to ladle on too much with the technicalities, but made sure to repeatedly return to the example of a virtual coffee cup to illustrate the challenges related to registration errors. Judging from the nodding response I got from the audience I think some of my points hit home. If nothing else, I am sure bells will ring next time they hear the term registration error.

I also took the opportunity to shamelessly plug our new app, the museum guide called Dott. However, instead of just churning on its unique features I also let the audience in on some of the challenges we have been facing during the development of the application.

I am very excited to the next opportunity to gather and discuss AR-related projects in and around Sweden. I am suspecting that in order to catch all the exciting milestones of the accelerating AR-development next event should take place within two years, not four.

Magnus Axholt

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