Spatial Sounds and Pikachus: An Augmented Reality Appreciation Post

“Even though the future seems far away, it is actually beginning right now.” – Poet Mattie Stepanek

By Melody Xu

Collage by Alex Hanson

The world has been taken by storm by Pokemon Go. If you don’t know what Pokemon Go is (you must be living under a rock), you’re missing out! Definitely go check out the App store and download it because your life will never be the same again. If you’re one of the millions of players already enjoying the game (please stop, you’re the reason the servers are crashing), good for you!

Regardless of whether or not you’ve already caught them all, Pokemon Go serves as a fantastic example of a game that implements augmented reality, or AR for short. By definition, any technology that inserts “digital interfaces into the real world” (according to the Salem Encyclopedia of Science) is an example of augmented reality.

People often group augmented reality together with virtual reality, but there is a stark difference between the two. While virtual reality attempts to create, in essence, a separate reality apart from real life, augmented reality aims to add (or augment, hence the name) the real world. While the fundamental concepts for augmented reality have been around since the early days, the actual term itself didn’t appear until the 1990s. Creators who utilize AR are unique in that they use the technology to enhance what users experience, rather than creating a whole new world for them.

There have been a big handful of companies (Google glasses, anyone?) that have made huge investments in AR, hoping that it will have a huge impact on the field of technology and the way people will interact with technology in the future in general. While it has traditionally been viewed as a tool in the field of entertainment in areas such as gaming or communication, augmented reality has recently been recognized as having great potential to impact many other parts of our lives and revolutionize other fields as well. Imagine, medical students observing a surgery while wearing glasses that also display a diagram of the human heart as a guide. Oh no, did you forget where you parked your car in that ten-story tall parking lot? No worries, AR is here to save the day.

While it’s certainly entertaining to imagine a future where we’re all connected to a cybernetic network and can have access to a wealth of information every hour of the day, augmented reality technology still has a long way to go before we can all sport rad-looking Google glasses on the daily. It was only in the past recent years that A.R. headsets have been designed to be small enough to use, with far better graphics. The Google Glass, which marks history as one of the first non-gaming AR devices marketed towards the public, which were released to the public in 2012 and, unfortunately, did not take off as well as expected. However, companies like Google and Microsoft are optimistic about the future and believe that one day, such technology will eventually be implemented into and become part of our everyday lives.

This optimism for augmented reality technology has lead to many changes in the field itself. Patent information from a major AR company, Magic Leap, has been released. Among the technology that the company have been working on include a tool that reportedly can beam images directly into the retinas of the wearer. This in particular is incredibly fascinating because, if this technology were to be functional and implemented, it would be able to succeed in tricking the brain, which would then be unable to tell the difference between light coming from the outside world and the light coming from the AR device. Augmented reality technology, quite literally, has the ability to change the way people would see the world.

As if augmented reality technology couldn’t get any cooler than this, HoloLens, Microsoft’s’ own AR headset, has been working on incorporating “spatial sound” in their own designed for AR products. “Spatial sound” refers to that sound that visual images received through the product would also be accompanied by sounds that take spatial distance into consideration. This would mean that if you to wear a pair of HoloLens glasses and saw a cheetah running in your direction, the corresponding sounds of the cheetah would get louder as the animal got closer and closer to you.

Of course, the term AR technology immediately sparks the image of Tony Stark, self-proclaimed genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, working in his lab. Everyone who’s watched an Iron Man or Avengers movie has witnessed the image of Tony working in his lab with Jarvis, his hands, while seemingly just moving in the air, are actually interacting with the display screens projected all around him. People often group this sort of technology in with the other fictitious science in the Marvel fandom (unless you also turn green when you’re angry, in which case you probably should consult a medical professional), but it isn’t as far-fetched as it seems in the movies. A.R. companies like Leap Motion have designed headsets that work with computers, allowing wearers to actually see the computer display in front of them and actually move parts of the display with the use of their hands.

Tony Stark working in his lab. Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

In some instances, augmented reality seems as if it is far from being ready to be incorporated into our daily lives. However, I believe that we are farther into the future than it may seem at a first glance. Sure, Pokemon Go may seem like a silly game to critics but it has had a huge impact on expectations of how and what information is presented and accessed in AR. While many of the technologies that have been mentioned earlier in the article have been kept mainly in the limited sphere of select professionals and experts, Pokemon Go symbolizes a shift in the market support of and a spike of awareness in the public eye for augmented reality technologies. Soon, people will want to swap lines for packed fitting rooms for AR fitting sessions and confused tourist experiences in foreign cities and foreign countries for AR-enhanced personal tours. With the awareness that the public now has and the shift in the way that people want and receive information, what is to say that this won’t spark an increase in the speed and methods that augmented reality technologies will be developed? Is the future of technology that Tony Stark paints for us in the Iron Man movies actually closer to us than we think it is?  As the poet Mattie Stepanek put it, “even though the future seems far away, it is actually beginning right now.”

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