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Augmented reality application for retail business concept. Hand holding smart phone with A/R application on screen to finding interested product in the store.
Augmented reality application for retail business concept. Hand holding smart phone with A/R application on screen to finding interested product in the store.

The Amazing Things We Can Do with Virtual and Augmented Reality

The “father of virtual reality,” Thomas Furness, talks to Robert J. Marks about his vision for the future

In a recent podcast, “Robert J. Marks and Thomas Furness on VR and AR,” Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks continued his discussion with the “grandfather of virtual reality,” Thomas Furness. They focused on the cutting edge of virtual reality today.


Partial transcript:

Robert J. Marks: So, Dr. Furness, we have been talking about a number of fascinating things, but there’s still some things that I’d like to talk to you about. Another one is ARToolworks. Now, AR stands for augmented reality.

Thomas Furness: Now, the difference really is between the VRs generally, where you are completely immersed in a computer-generated environment. That’s all you see is the computer generation of images. AR, on the other hand, is where you see the real world, the physical world, but you’re able to superimpose on top of the physical world, images generated by the computer.

This is virtual reality (with 3-D glasses):

This is augmented reality:

Thomas Furness: We built a thing, teleconferencingm where you can actually flip over the cards and call a person and they appear on top of this card, and you put them around your desk. So, you’re interacting with these people in 3-D, around your desk, little miniatures of these people. We were also, we had one big card that we made in our lab. And when you walked in, if you had these glasses on, it’s the Millennium Falcon. So, you see the real room, you see the real lab, but the Millennium Falcon is sitting there in the middle of it, and you could walk around it, the Star Wars Millennium Falcon. Anyhow, that got us started. So, we started this company, we built ARToolKit at the University of Washington. And then we released it, open-source, and we had 100,000 downloads…

So, what happened was, we had all those downloads and we’re thinking, “Hmm, maybe we ought to start a company.” And so, what we did was, we started a company called ARToolworks, Inc. The idea, we were going to take the open-source thing and rewrite it, and support it, sort of like Unix and Linux and so forth. And so, we did that and started this company. It was the very first augmented reality company. It started in 2001, and existed until about 2015, when we sold it to DAQRI. And then, DAQRI worked on it for a while and DAQRI went belly up…

But you could still get it, I guess. But this has become the foundation for just so many other companies, that have taken this and built other approaches for doing this kind of thing, the same kind of thing. Matter of fact, there’s one company that split off from my HIT Lab in New Zealand call Quiver.

Then you can go online to QuiverVision and you download these little, it looks like a coloring book. And what you do is you can print out this coloring book, and then you’d have your kids color those with crayons, and then you put, take your phone or VR device, and you look at that page that you’ve colored. And now it pops into life. This texture-mapped, the objects are textured-mapped by what you colored on that two dimensions onto a three-dimensional figure, and they do various things. They play games and things like that.

The discussion eventually turned to human peripheral vision and the way in which it enables us to see things of which we may not be conscious:

Thomas Furness: I’m really intrigued what’s going on with the peripheral retina, especially since recent research shows that the retina extends way beyond that 180 degrees. And indeed, at the rim of the retina, in the area called the ora serrata, there is a rich ring of cone receptors, which gives us a highly detailed color vision, just right on the rim of the retina. So, why is it there? Because what happens is, the detectability, the limit of detectability is really around 100 degrees, all facets, which is 200 degrees. We were able to only go in our research with 180. But I was interested in what happened beyond that…

So, we started doing the research to say, okay, what is the limit of detectability? And so, we extended the range out to where we’d go all the way out to 240 degrees field of view. And we found that pretty much around 101 degrees is where people stop seeing visual images. So, at 100 degrees centricity, which is one axis, you add that together to about 200 degrees is the limit of detectability. If you go beyond that, toward the rear, you don’t see it anymore. Right?

And we’ve start from the rear and go front, that’s when you start seeing it again. So, there’s a little band there, of the limits of detectability. We said, “Okay, that’s interesting. What if we display something beyond that?” The limit of detectability. Because the rim of the retina is way beyond that.

So, what we did, we did these experiments, where we display different objects in the far periphery beyond this limit. And asked the subjects to identify what object we presented. They said, “But I can’t see it.” We said, “That’s okay. Tell us what you think it is.” And they get it right.

So, this is what is called perception without awareness. Now, it’s obvious that this information is being processed in the brain somehow, but it’s not in our consciousness. Now, it’s probably processed in other ways, but we believe, and this is where we’re continuing to do our work, that this may be a direct channel to some of the subconscious, and to the limbic system and to the emotional state, and actually help you establish where you are.

Another of Tom Furness’s projects is the Virtual World Society:

Thomas Furness: Yes, the Virtual World Society mission is really to do three things. One is to unlock intelligence, link minds, and lift hearts. And it’s all for humanitarian applications of virtual reality, in education, in medicine, in design, to lift mankind. Whereas, the default of industry is to tear us down, by practicing killing people. And if you kill a person in VR, it’s different than killing a person on a computer screen, because you’re up close and personal. When you blow out their brains, it’s different. And what happens as a result of that is you either have nightmares or you get numb. So, what I’m trying to do in the Virtual World Society is all these projects that show the positive aspects of what we can do with virtual reality, in education, building what we call a learning living room…

And it’s amazing on generating empathy. I mean, when you go… And New York Times has done this, when they… If you’re a subscriber of the New York Times, you received in the mail this Google card, and you basically assemble this and put your phone in it, your smartphone, and then you could download of these different experiences. One of them was a food drop in Africa. And here you are, standing on this field, with all these other people from a village, waiting for the C-130 to fly over and drop food. Wow. That changes your life. You’ll always remember it. You’ll see the faces of those people, what happened when they rushed to the packages, and you’re there in the middle of it. And this is transformative in terms of generating empathy, and what is going to be the future of news, and because you’re going to be there.

Society membership is free and there are currently 1200 members.

You may also enjoy Dr. Marks’s earlier podcasts with Thomas Furness:

Virtual reality joins actual reality—and it’s a real advance. The grandfather of virtual reality explains how everyone began to adopt VR. Thomas Furness had more patents at his HIT Lab than all the rest of the university combined because he made a point of looking for different perspectives.

VR was invented by an Air Force engineer. Real world pilot concerns drove his inventions, long before Comic-Con. Fighter pilots needed virtual reality to see what was happening around them. That’s how the technology got started, as developer Tom Furness explains.

VR Pioneer Founded Off-Campus Lab to Work On Practical Uses. RATLab, founded in 2005, gave unlikely students a chance to work on serious virtual reality projects. Thomas Furness recounts RATLab’s adventures in applying virtual reality to problems in medicine, helicopter rescue, and wherever it might be useful.

Also: Abandoning reality: Getting lost in Oculus Quest’s VR: Amazing. And time to remember the history. I was the chair of the first serious conference dedicated to virtual reality twenty-five years ago. (Robert J. Marks)

Show Notes

  • 00:26 | Introducing Dr. Thomas Furness, Professor of Industrial & Systems Engineering at the University of Washington
  • 01:20 | Virtual reality vs. augmented reality
  • 04:57 | Interacting with virtual images
  • 09:52 | AR Tool Kit / AR Toolworks
  • 12:10 | Feeling immersed in a picture
  • 18:07 | The range of peripheral vision
  • 21:43 | The future of virtual reality
  • 24:47 | The Virtual World Society

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The Amazing Things We Can Do with Virtual and Augmented Reality