Last week, Jordan and I returned from a two day trip to Atlanta to visit Georgia Tech. We were there to attend a corporate sponsor event and to meet with Blair MacIntyre, a professor in the GVU Center, and his students. Blair heads the Augmented Environments Laboratory. He and his students are embarking on a Wonderland project focused on prototyping a mixed-reality team room. The goal of the project is to figure out how to design a physical team room and a virtual team room in concert, so that local and remote people can interact as effectively as possible. We had a lively brainstorming session, focusing on various options for how the real world and the physical world should meet. Stay tuned for more details on this project as the Georgia Tech team ramps up and decides on a focus for the project.
The second day of the visit was devoted to an afternoon of demos. I snapped a few photos of the projects we found interesting that had relevance to virtual worlds. Starting with projects in Blair’s group, the "pit" was one of the most compelling. This setup involved wearing goggles and walking around an installation. To the naked eye, this installation looks like a green floor surrounded by wooden planks. It doesn’t look in the least bit scary. But put on those goggles, and suddenly you’re standing on the edge of roof looking WAY down into a room below.
The screen in the middle shows what Jordan and I were looking at, but it does not come close to capturing the sense of immersion that you feel looking down through the goggles. I managed to walk out over the pit onto one of the flat planks, but only after tapping my foot in the "air" to make sure it was really solid ground. Even after doing this, I couldn’t quite bring myself to walk on the wobbly plank. Jordan didn’t even make it out onto the flat plank! It was quite an amazing illusion.
All of the other augmented reality demos involved handheld devices rather than goggles. The handhelds are used as "portals" which you look through to see the real-life scene augmented with virtual content. In the first demo, they created a space in Second Life and a parallel space on a table in the real world. The space in the real world had some lego blocks in it (below left). These were modeled in the Second Life space. The Second Life space had some additional objects. When you viewed the physical space through the handheld "portal," you could see the extra Second Life objects superimposed on the physical space (below right). For example, in the close-up below you can see a Second Life character standing on one of the lego blocks and behind that you can see a sign that only exists in the virtual space. As you move the handheld around, you are panning around both the physical and virtual spaces.
Two other demos involved augmented reality games. In the first (below left), you could move the handheld "portal" over a water scene. When you did this, a boat appeared on the screen that seemed to be floating in the water. You could navigate the boat around the water and look for fish swimming. After you chase down the fish, you can press a button to throw out a line and press the button again to reel in the fish. The other (below right) was an augmented reality board game that used physical playing pieces on a table, which, when put together, formed a path that virtual characters could drive on. You could also physically draw on the playing pieces to direct the action in the game. The monitor in the photo is showing what one of the players is seeing on the handheld screen.
Another demo in this vein used cardboard trading cards printed with characters and special markers. When you look at a single card through the handheld portal, you see the character pop up off the card and dance on top of it in 3D. When a second card is placed next to the first, the second character animates and interacts with the first. I can really imagine kids enjoying this.
In the Computer Graphics lab, there was a demo of motion capture using a full-body suit. You can’t see it clearly in the photo below, but the person wearing the body suit is controlling a stylized avatar interacting with virtual monkey bars. The live person uses hand and arm motions to climb up a pole and then grab hold of the bars and swing from one to the other. When he reaches the last bar, he has to swing his upper body back and forth to build up enough momentum to swing himself up onto a platform.
Right now, this is done with passive sensors and cameras, but it was fun to imagine the suit with Sun SPOTs instead. I was quite taken with the abstract avatar used in this animation. It looks very similar to the two avatars above that are taken from a different application by this same group. Those interested in avatars and avatar motion might be interested to see other projects from Professor Karen Liu’s group.
Two other demos I liked, but that are not directly related to virtual worlds included a tabletop game (below left) similar to twister and an enhanced fish tank (below right). Here they had a live fish tank with a computer next to it. The screen showed video of the live tank with the names of the fish superimposed over the moving video of the fish.
There were other interesting demos as well, which you can read about on the GVU Center’s Demo Showcase page.