The Hidden Potential of Augmented Reality

In an article on Forbes Charles Towers-Clark interviews three individuals about Augmented Reality.  AR is the latest bandwagon to grip the minds of the public. There has been a plethora of AR announcements over the last year – including Mozilla’s Firefox Reality (an AR/VR browser) and Snapchat’s Lense Studio that lets users create their own filters. The tech giants have all released AR developments tools (Apple’s ARkit, Facebook’s Spark AR Studioand Google’s ARCore) and announced plans to launch AR glasses.

Such heavy investment in the technology indicates real potential beyond entertainment, and there are some people looking deeper into AR and how to combine it with other emerging technologies. I spoke to three individuals, Daniel Spruce, Ryan Hooks and Adrian Leu, who are proving that AR is useful for far more than just Pokémon Go.

Programming virtually

As any technology becomes more accessible to the public, smaller projects emerge that bring a completely fresh perspective. After completing his masters in Computer Science, Daniel Spruce started programming for Stainless Games then moved to a business software company. Realizing that many of his tasks involved ‘boilerplate code’, and that the systems he was working with used different programming languages, Spruce started work on a system to align ‘concepts’ between languages to reduce time spent on repetitive code.

This language uses a virtual space to visualize concepts (commands such as ‘read’, objects such as ‘image’, and attributes like ‘size’) as ‘blobs’ in 3D space, so that these concepts can exist independently without being written into a program. ‘Think of a parcel tracking system,’ says Spruce, ‘at each stage of its journey it may go through several computer systems that each define the object “parcel” in a different language. What my system does is to assign a “blob” to the concept of “parcel”, so that each system is talking about the same thing, and the concept “parcel” still exists even when it is not coded in one particular system.’

Using AR and 3D gloves, users can then manipulate the blobs without having to understand different programming languages. When it is finished, Spruce sees this as a way to bring more people into programming and create huge efficiencies in digital processes. ‘Projects could be managed, produced and deployed by one person’, avoiding the back-and-forth that comes with building a programme to specifications and helping teams in the planning phase. ‘In a typical scrum meeting, you could have everyone wearing a headset and gloves moving tasks and projects around instead of looking at one monitor – you could make the top priorities fill the whole room, and throw the backlog into the carpark outside.’

Farming 4.0

Augmented reality is a great way to visualize complex ideas, like what all that code actually does, or how to cultivate plants in restricted conditions. One company with a view of a technological future is Plant Vision, who are aiming to create a decentralized ‘collaborative’ AI ledger for plant breeding & optimization. Using AR, each ‘master grower’ receives equity in the footage they annotate. Recorded in the RGB color spectrum, infrared for ‘early disease detection’ and ultraviolet for ‘flowering and pollination’, the growers then add this data to a digital ledger to collaboratively train the AI system, and they receive value over time as their data is put into commercial use.

Considering the company’s roots in the rapidly growing cannabis industryand the complex, valuable data that comes with it – ‘the dataset just for powdery mildew for cannabis will be worth billions a year’ – the ambitions of Plant Vision are certainly not stuck in the mud. Transferring experience from his first companies Isabel/Huxley, founder Ryan Hooks hopes to harness AR and AI to increase yields and motivate farmers around the world. ‘For vine crops like cannabis, tomatoes and cucumbers, a Dutch grower can get 500% more per square meter just by knowing how to take care of the plant, so augmentation has so much potential.’

Based at Wageningen University, the project is currently focused on making tools for plant scientists in the Netherlands. With expansion planned in 2019, Hooks intends to ‘bring multi-million dollar Digital Phenotyping into our pockets’ thanks to high-powered GPUs and Machine Learning capabilities inside the latest smartphones. ‘It’s not AR for AR’s sake, it’s a hands-free system for understanding plants via AI,’ says Hooks: ‘I see augmentation as a bridge to automation, as it will take about 10-20 years for robots to be affordable in many plant sectors – instead of a million dollar robot you could have 50+ augmented growers.’

Beyond the bandwagon

While the visual media industry may be getting a reputation for blatantly capitalising on AR, there is a large amount of research behind closed doors aiming to advance AR technology in general. Adrian Leu, CEO of Inition, talked to me about where AR is headed and the investment that is happening in the visual media industry to solve limitations of this technology. ‘Current headsets, like Magic Leap or Hololens, are concerned with one major aspect which is to convincingly align and display virtual objects onto the physical world. However, there is no cognitive correlation at the moment between those objects and the physical world.’

Leu calls this ‘ability to process the surrounding world’ contextual intelligence and argues that this represents the next stage of AR that can gather information from its environment and learn to ‘see’ and display more appropriate information. ‘One can imagine soon how a certain wearable could scan an environment and process it in the cloud,’ says Leu, combining AR with advanced AI to increase this contextual relevance by ‘feeding data from sensors that study how the physical world behaves and evolves.’ This kind of intelligent AR would be a more hardware-based route towards achieving real computer vision, a cornerstone of AI research, and ‘could have a major impact in applications like training, remote maintenance, and collaborative design.’

Augmented Reality may be the latest craze for the visual entertainment industry, and an exciting new technology for the tech giants to sink their teeth into, but as is often the case there are far more interesting things going on in the background. Whether used in individual projects to make programming more accessible, ambitious plant-rearing collaborative AI, or in promising research behind the silver screen, AR has a bold future ahead of it.


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