Augmented reality – looking at the world through an overlay of computer-generated information — was once the stuff of science fiction. But now, with Google's latest project, Google Glass, AR has been thrust into the mainstream.
The company wants its ultra-stylish, high-priced headband to change the way we view the world.
The world, for now, being the U.S., as Google Glass isn't going to be sold in Canada in the near future, no matter how eager some enthusiasts may be.
But that doesn't mean there isn't a Canadian alternative for a wearable computer. Take Epson's Moverio.
Yes, the California company that makes printers and projectors also makes a wearable, transparent display in glasses form, which has been modified into an AR training tool by Edmonton-based Scope Technologies.
The original display "really came out of the R&D side of our projector labs," explains Eric Mizufuka, product manager of Moverio at Epson America in Los Angeles.
"We've been working on projectors for 20-plus years and this particular product has been in existence in our labs for the last four to five."
Designed for Japanese commuters
For Epson, the idea behind the concept was as a mobile entertainment device for the commuter culture of Japan.
Having your head down while watching your favourite TV show or movie on your smartphone clashed with the go-go nature of commuting, the company felt.
"Being able to have a transparent, hands-free, big-screen solution on the go — there's quite the market for that," Mizufuka said.
On this side of the world, however, that market demand just wasn't there.
So Epson repositioned Moverio as a developer's tool. Mizufuka saw the lack of commercially available transparent displays for developers to work on — unless they paid a lot.
Anything you could get your hands on could cost $5,000, and these were still hard to get, Mizufuka says. Moverio, on the other hand, comes in at about $699 US.
That is where Edmonton-based Scope Technologies came into the picture. It modified Epson's Moverio glasses into an AR training system.
On-site fix-it for oil industry
In the video demonstration, the modified glasses are employed to show how to repair a water pump in real time.
Sometimes called wearable computing, the concept of augmented reality refers to a person's ability to navigate the real world while aided by some sort of hands-free computer-generated information, like GPS data or web-streamed video, using a device like glasses or some sort of headset.
Since the unveiling of the first "beta version" of Google Glass "smartglasses" almost a year ago, the tech world has been gearing up for more commercialized versions.
The voice-controlled Google Glass is able to display web information in a tiny, high-definition screen in the upper corner of the right lens, using a wireless connection to a smartphone. It also takes pictures and video of the real world directly in front of the wear using a front-facing camera.
"That was really just a generic piece of equipment," describes David Nedohin, one of the partners at Scope Technologies, who went down to a water-pump store in Edmonton and found one that could be taken apart.
"One of our team members is in the animation/content-creation side of the business, so he created the animations for it."
Scope used that pump as an example of how AR could be used in maintenance and training.
As Nedohin tells it, one of the biggest oil patch issues he hears about is the training of unskilled labour in the field. He saw an opportunity in that.
"Bad habits are continually passed down the line. You can have a lot of expensive equipment that's not being maintained properly, and the life cycle of that equipment is dramatically lower than what it should be."
So using AR as a tool that can be taught in the classroom and deployed by workers in the field "would be a tremendous cost savings for an organization," Nedohin says.
Ontario experimenting, too
On the other side of the country, AR is getting similar support through the help of organizations like the Ontario Centres of Excellence.
At the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, researcher Andrew Hogue and his team have just received some Moverio units and are continuing to try to expand their uses.
"In my opinion, there hasn't been enough experimentation in this area," says Hogue, "which is why it is great for research."
Currently, Hogue's students are looking at augmented reality for video game development by using the screen's potential to display video of the world around it in order to digitalize a gaming environment without having to first build a prototype.
'The fact that Google is out there and building this hardware and associating it with augmented reality is a benefit to the AR industry at large. We're thrilled about that.' —David Nedohin, Scope Technologies
His other ideas include a medical-training scenario, where people must work together, using real instruments, to remove a foreign object or stitch up wounds on a virtual patient.
That communal and immersive gaming experience is also seen in projects like Ingress, a multi-player online game that is played out over a virtual map of real terrain. Ingress is thought to be what Google will include one day in Google Glass.
What binds people like Mizufuka, Nedohin and Hogue is more than a pair of glasses. It's a passion for the field of augmented reality that is gaining greater interest from venture capitalists and others for its potential as a hands-free wearable computer.
Without the might of Google behind it, of course, the enormous potential Scope Technologies sees in the field would be an uphill climb.
As Nedohin puts it, "the fact that Google is out there and building this hardware and associating it with augmented reality is a benefit to the AR industry at large. We're thrilled about that."