Recently I’ve been getting quite excited about the prospect of augmented reality. If you’ve not heard the buzzword, its about about overlaying digital information on to the real world. With the rise of powerful handheld devices like the iPhone, augmented reality is becoming more common – check out this Tube-location app that helps you navigate around London.
Mobile phones are a start, but what I’m really interested in is a wearable computer. Rather than living in your pocket, such a device would be built in to a pair of glasses or even contact lenses. Its not a new idea – people like Steve Mann have been using wearable computers for decades – but now there seems to be a greater appetite for a proper commercial product.
That goal could be getting closer, thanks to some experimental kit being used on the International Space Station. Astronauts are trialling the Wearable Augmented Reality (WEAR), developed by Belgium-based Space Applications as a replacement for their current system – pen and paper. This surprisingly low-tech solution allows the ISS crew to consult operational manuals with ease, but requires them to physically hold on to their instructions. WEAR offers voice-activated hands-free controls, highlighting important objects in the real world and displaying information directly in the user’s field-of-vision.
The WEAR is built from off-the-shelf components, but is currently limited by scheduling and budget constraints, rather than technology. All equipment used on-board the ISS is subject to strict checks, and the team behind the WEAR found it easier to use what was already up there. Rather than using an ultra-modern PC, the WEAR interfaces with tried-and-tested laptops that are over five-years-old. As a result, the WEAR can only operate for an hour at a time before the batteries need recharging.
While the hardware up in space may be limited, there are no such restrictions here on Earth. Space Applications is considering applying the technology to fire-fighting, presumably as a way of navigating smoke-filled buildings. I’m excited to see new uses of augmented reality coming up, and I’m looking forward to eventually trying it myself!