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What's real, what's not?

Augmented reality is changing how we see the world

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A Columbia grad student 'grabs' a virtual pot.
Columbia grad student Sinem Guven 'tours' campus via goggles at a Computer Science Dept. lab.

It's not necessary to have one brewski too many to glimpse menus floating in front of restaurants a block away, direction signs where there aren't any, or buildings that are long gone. All you need is augmented reality.

For years now, researchers have been working to overlay computer-generated images onto the real world to inform, assist, reconstruct. You may not realize it, but you're already familiar with a form of augmented reality: the yellow first-down line on football telecasts and those ads behind home plate seen by TV viewers but not by fans at the baseball stadium.

The creators of these effects often refer to them as "virtual" enhancements, in keeping with the terminology for virtual reality--a technology first developed in the 1980s. Virtual reality aimed to substitute computer-generated visuals for the real world; augmented reality (as its name implies) merely adds graphics to existing surroundings.

While computer scientists are busy perfecting augmented reality in labs as far afield as North Carolina and Washington state, it's only fitting that our own hallucinatory hamlet is an important center for this new way of seeing.

The Sporting Views

During football season, the CBS Broadcast Center on W. 57th St. has a room entirely devoted to equipment for adding the first-down line to as many as seven regional games being aired simultaneously. At other times, this hardware is dispersed elsewhere to overlay baseball broadcasts with backstop ads or golf coverage with computer-created paths of shots.

PVI Virtual Media Services in Lawrenceville, N.J., provides augmented reality technology to CBS. PVI competitor Sportvision, pioneer of the "1st-and-10" line and other enhancements, adds these to broadcasts for ABC, Fox, and ESPN.

In augmented reality, point of view is all-important. PVI uses sensor-independent vision processing, essentially computer recognition of what's on the football field. In the control room, a technician loads an unenhanced video tape of a recent game and cues a 6-foot-high rack of computer hardware named LVIS (for Live Video Insertion System).

"It's looking for the yard lines and working out which lines it's looking at," explains Lionel White, PVI vice president for operations. LVIS does this not by reading the numbers on the field, but mathematically, according to the lines' perspective. The technician keys in the number of yards from where the ball is placed to a first down and the familiar yellow stripe appears on screen as if it were painted across the width of the field.

High-Tech Ghosts

What if, instead of needing bulky hardware and TV monitors for millions of viewers, augmented reality could be implemented on portable computers and lightweight goggles for personal use?

That's what Prof. Steven Feiner of Columbia University has been working on for more than a decade. He and his students have developed an evolving platform for testing applications called Mobile Augmented Reality Systems (MARS) - with fund-ing from the Office of Naval Research.

The public will have a rare opportunity to experience MARS technology on May 27-28, during Fleet Week, onboard the Afloat Lab ship at Pier 86 by the USS Intrepid on the Hudson River. In a simple demonstration, visitors donning display goggles will be able to look around the cabin and see the computer-generated equivalent of Post-It Notes floating beside features of interest. Imagine repair procedures overlayed on complicated machinery or markers of hazards below the water or over the horizon, and the reasons for the Navy's sponsorship become clear.

Feiner and his team have also created intriguing civilian applications. A computer-aided tour of the Columbia University campus presents informational signs and on-the-spot video documentaries through the goggles, opening the way for augmented reality for tourism. A restaurant guide offering menus and reviews hovering by restaurants on Broadway is the precursor of a futuristic Zagat's. And a recently completed visualization of a dig in Sicily allows archaeology students to interact realistically with images of artifacts as they were discovered thousands of miles away.

Establishing a user's point of view currently requires cum­bersome equip­ment, arrays of sensors indoors or a GPS and motion-sensing system outdoors, plus goggles. But Feiner envisions a time when an ordinary-looking pair of glasseswith a built-in display, and a compact system that recognizes faces,could make augmented reality a social necessity.

"It could show you the name of a person you run into, remind you of personal information, and conversations you've had."

Next on Feiner's agenda is computer modeling of a nearby landmark building as it appears today and as it did at different stages of construction and in plans that were never executed.

"In augmented reality," he says, "you could turn back the clock to see visual reconstructions of how things looked at that location at various times."

For instance, the same technology could be used someday to recreate an onsite depiction of the World Trade Center in all its soaring, tragic majesty.

Originally published on May 16, 2004

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