Dear Colleagues

Over the past few years we have heard a lot about virtual reality – computer generated worlds in which one can be completely immersed. Interestingly it has never quite fired up the engineering world. Virtual reality is obviously very prevalent in video games, but has not become overly convincing elsewhere (exceptions exist in very specialised applications).

A new hype, however, has crept up vigorously over the past year - augmented reality or AR. This is a concept I can see generating great results for us in engineering. Rather than trying to create an entirely new reality, digital information is merely added on top of it. This is not only much easier, but is certainly more compelling for us cynical punters. Augmented reality can be as simple as taking the screen of a mobile phone (which takes a reasonably accurate picture of the world) and adding digital information (such as text and graphics) to each item in the picture. This can range from labelling the mountains visible within a photograph to superimposing historical images on a renovated building to show how it looked 200 years before. Phones can even be used to locate…. say, an Indian restaurant in a certain area (although it would only locate those restaurants participating on the GPS system). Augmented reality (AR) technology enables one to mesh in the barrage of online data with the real world. AR has been around for many years, but the sudden advent of mobile phones with the capability of the following five items has made it workable:

• GPS (satellite positioning – a bit ho hum these days)
• Tilt sensors (we know all about these with our kids wii’s)
• Cameras (rapidly jumping in quality)
• Fast internet (pretty expected these days with the photos being shot off into hyperspace)
• And a very recent innovation – a digital compass (it knows where you are pointing it)

Remember, this does not merely pertain to a mobile phone - a PDA or pocket superportable computer (or even desktop computer if it has these features) can also utilise AR.

A clever AR application which has enjoyed widespread interest recently is Wikitude. As a tourist you can walk through a city and view the landmarks. A Wikipedia entry for each landmark (providing a detailed description of its history and other attributes) is immediately pulled up onto your mobile phone display. Apparently there are 600,000 Wikipedia entries linked to their longitudes and latitudes and the program looks for a matching set, based on those your phone pulls out with its GPS.

 “Mildly interesting” you may remark, “for a consumer in a shopping mall or a tourist, but what possible impact for us in the engineering world?” But I can see a stampede of applications bearing down on us. Just think:

• Hold your digital phone next to a piece of machinery - a help screen jumps out to tell you how to service or maintain it.
• Glance at your phone’s display as it buzzes when you get too close to some dangerous process – it tells you that you need to be careful and indicates exactly what could happen
• Listen to your phone as it relays an alarm to you from your plant - it tells you where to look to fix the problem. The screen includes a picture which directs you to the problem source.
• Look through your PDA camera to see all the electrical cables and water piping laid out below it. Problems can be more easily located and more quickly fixed.
• Scan a city area to be excavated through your head held camera. By superimposing a model of the proposed trench on the physical landscape, pipes and cables can be avoided.
• Leave messages virtually tagged to the bits of equipment on a plant during your operation shift. When others wander around the plant pointing their cameras at the specific pieces of equipment, a host of messages will be downloaded and superimposed onto the equipment detailing any issues that have been previously encountered.

The mind boggles with the possibilities…..

And as for my earlier comments regarding my preference for reality over the virtual world - I must confess, I do love Albert Einstein’s (attributed, admittedly) take on reality:

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.

Thanks to the Economist and wikitude for some interesting thoughts.

Yours in engineering learning