Virtual reality is a term that has been used frequently in sci-fi novels and movies. Virtual reality is a technology which allows the user to interact with an environment that exists only in a computer. Augmented reality, which is one of the newest innovations in the electronics industry, tries at superimposing a range of elements such as graphics, audio and other sense enhancements from computer screens onto real-time environments.
Virtual reality and augmented reality systems go far beyond the static graphics technology and try to assimilate the user’s movement and actions to create complex virtual worlds that can “trick” a person into believing that s/he is experiencing reality. These virtual environments have the capability to revolutionise how we view, interact and use information to perceive the world around us, and embedded technology is powering the future of these systems.
Virtual Reality (VR) is an artificial environment created with a computer and presented to the user in such a way that it appears and feels like a real environment. To experience a virtual reality environment, the user is required to wear special gloves, earphones and goggles, all of which receive inputs from the computer system. The computer continuously monitors and analyses the user’s actions and alters the information fed to the devices the user has worn. For example the goggles, track head movements and respond accordingly by sending a new video input which makes the user feel s/he is in a real environment. The simulated environment can be similar to the real world – for example, simulations for pilot or combat training – or it can differ significantly from reality – such as alien worlds and creatures depicted in Virtual Reality games.
In contrast, the goal of Augmented Reality (AR) is to add information and meaning to a real object or place. Unlike Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality is not aimed at creating a simulated computer-based environment. Instead, it takes a real object or space that the user is viewing, as the foundation, and incorporates contextual data to deepen a person’s understanding of the object. For example, Augmented Reality can add data such as an audio commentary, location data, historical context or similar information that can make a user’s experience of a thing or a place more meaningful. Similarly, AR systems can be used to superimpose images from an X-ray or MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanner directly onto a patient’s body to help a surgeon analyse and clearly understand the nature of a fracture or a tumour.
Augmented reality is the next step in Virtual Reality, created by combining information, digital data received from different devices and the internet, to create a surreal world which gets displayed to the user in such an intuitive fashion that the user may not be able to differentiate between the real world and its virtual augmentation.
Creating The Virtual World
Getting the right information at the right time and the right place is the key to the functioning of a VR and AR system. The basic requirements of both VR and AR systems are same – both depend on data generated from user movements and perspective to arrive at the information (text, visuals, sound etc.) to be provided to the user. AR systems and VR systems employ similar hardware technologies but differ in the complexity of the systems used. In general, the devices used in both VR and AR systems can be summarised as below.
Tracking devices: The “input” unit of a virtual system or tracking devices help sense the movements of the user to identify the user’s coordinates in real-time. The requirements for AR in such cases are much stricter than those for VR systems. VR systems use indoor tracking devices to track the entire body actions of a user to “transport” the user to a virtual environment. For example a flight or parachute-landing simulator simulates the movement of the user to display a real-life scene on a screen or a Head Mounted Device (HMD). In the case of AR, the tracking system uses a combination of indoor and outdoor tracking devices to recognize what a user is viewing at a given movement. For example, a handheld device showing information about a building or a piece of art the user is viewing.
Scene processor: VR systems need to process and generate realistic images because they completely replace the real world with the virtual environment for the user. Thus, a complex and high performance intelligent embedded system capable of rendering text, graphics and sound to match user movements is critical in a VR environment. In AR, the virtual images only supplement the real world. Therefore, fewer virtual objects need to be drawn, and they do not necessarily have to be realistically rendered. However, an AR system needs to have the intelligence to interface with a centralised database or connect to a network, internet or GPS (Global Positioning System) to fetch and display the right information to the user. In addition, an AR system tracks the position and orientation of the user’s head so that the overlaid material can be aligned with the user’s view of the world.
Display device: The display devices used in AR may be less complex when compared to VR systems. For example, monochrome or low-resolution display may be adequate for some AR applications, while VR systems need to use full colour high-resolution display systems. Optical see-through Head Mounted Devices (HMD) with a small display device may be satisfactory in the case of an AR system because the user can still see the real world. However, a complex HMD that blocks the user’s view to the real-world is critical in the case of a VR system.
Difference between Virtual and Augmented Reality
Virtual reality provides a totally immersive environment while Augmented Reality adds information to the user’s existing view of the world.
- User senses
In Virtual Reality, a user has to be in a controlled environment, a simulator capsule or a head mounted device (HMD) that feeds the user visuals, sounds, motion, sensation and in some cases smell as well.
In Augmented Reality, the user maintains a sense of presence in real world and the information is generally displayed on HMD or a handheld device.
Virtual Reality systems are complex since it needs to process all details associated with the virtual environment. Augmented Reality systems are less complex but needs to combine virtual and real worlds to provide a rich user experience.
Similar to a central processing unit of a computer, the scene processor forms the core part of a VR or AR system where the data gets processed and results are generated for the user. Embedded systems are playing a vital role in creating advanced, intelligent and affordable scene generators for VR and AR systems. The increase in processing power and miniaturisation of embedded components are paving way to the creation of scene processors with higher processing power yet in sizes that fit inside the palm of the user. The use of embedded technology also supports interconnectivity of similar devices and also ensures connectivity to external systems, networks or internet to give a rich holistic user experience.
Virtual Reality Applications
- Flight, parachute, vehicle simulation
- Simulation for space missions
- Robotics and tele-robotics
- Sci-fi movies
- Medical surgery simulation
- Virtual Reality games
- Amusement rides
Augmented Reality Applications
- Pre-operative anatomy imaging of X-ray & MRI scans
- Virtual HMDs to aid military combat operations
- Virtual navigation systems
- Shopping – providing enhanced reviews of goods
- Entertainment and education – in schools, exhibitions & museums
Though Virtual Reality has been around for some time, the incorporation of advanced embedded technologies is helping researchers improve the quality and control of the system. Augmented Reality, which is a relatively new advancement in electronics, has also scaled new heights with the use of Embedded Technology. The virtual systems of the future can be so advanced in the near future it could even work on the thoughts of the user. The potential of virtual systems are huge, and embedded systems that are powering it reach outstanding levels of interactivity.
About LX Group
LX Group incorporates LX Innovations, LX Design House, LX Solutions and LX Consulting, and is an award-winning electronics design company based in Sydney, Australia. LX services include full turnkey design, electronics, hardware, software and firmware design. They specialise in embedded systems and wireless technologies design.
LX Group offers clients a range of professional solutions designed to take a new product idea from concept through to production and beyond. LX focuses on fully understanding all aspects of a client’s requirements (both technical and business) and works on creating custom-made solutions. LX Group’s expertise in developing electronic products enables a quicker design process and reduces cost in bringing a concept to reality. www.lx-group.com.au
Published by LX Group for itself and the LX Group of companies, including LX Design House, LX Solutions and LX Consulting, LX Innovations.