Google Glass: changing our grip on reality

IAIN GILLESPIE
Last updated 11:11 30/08/2013

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Google Glass hasn't even hit the market but already scientists are developing systems that will make them look like old-fashioned spectacles, and that's just for starters. Get ready to land on Mars from the comfort of your living room.

New waves of technology heading for our shores involve augmented reality - the mixing of digital information with reality - and virtual reality, which will plunge consumers into three-dimensional worlds and allow them to wander at will.

While scientists at Samsung and several US universities work on computerised contact lenses that will surpass the augmented reality promised by Google Glass, a virtual-reality treadmill for home use is already scheduled for sale in 2014.

US company Virtuix is releasing an omnidirectional treadmill, which it says will allow users to move around naturally and freely in virtual worlds when paired with sensor shoes and an Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset.

The system is primarily designed for computer games but the many other opportunities it offers for virtual-reality entertainment experiences are obvious, such as movies, scenic tours and educational packages.

Nasa has programmed vision of Mars into a Virtuix developer kit to give users the experience of walking around on the red planet, and has also built a virtual model of the International Space Station to explore with the headset.

A full virtual-reality set-up is expected to cost more than US$1000 with shipping. The treadmill kit, with a belt, studded shoes and tracking hardware and software, can be pre-ordered for US$549, and the headset will cost about US$300.

If you want someone to walk around in a virtual-reality world with you, or more likely shoot at you inside a three-dimensional war game, there's an Omni Duel package for US$1069, which includes two treadmills and belts, and three pairs of shoes. That all sounds like good fun, but jump from virtual reality into augmented reality, and you enter a world in which scientists are genuinely worried about the social upheaval that could result.

Henry Duh, a professor at the University of Tasmania's human interface technology lab, says like most researchers of virtual reality, he was originally inspired by seeing the holodeck on Starship Enterprise in the TV series Star Trek. Immersive systems that have many elements of the holodeck are becoming commonplace in universities and technology centres, but the way in which science fiction has become reality in the form of something like the futuristic visor worn by Star Trek's Commander La Forge has Duh deeply concerned.

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He imagines someone walking down a busy city street wearing computerised eyewear that locks on to the face of every person they look at, instantly providing the wearer with the names, ages, addresses and personal details of strangers.

"Facial-recognition software allows us to do that now," he says. "Augmented reality can allow us to look at all the information associated with a person after identifying them, for example, by searching and finding their photo on Facebook. We've already developed one of these systems using a mobile phone. It can recognise your face and pour out all the information about you from the internet. We haven't released it, of course. It's an urgent and critical privacy issue.

"Academics and engineers involved in the field are very concerned. We need social scientists to get involved, in order to study and understand what will be the social impacts of such cutting-edge technology. Right now, there's no barrier to it."

The problem would become more insidious if the scanning of personal information by visible objects such as mobile phones or Google Glass were to be succeeded by invisible technology embedded in contact lenses.

That potential downside can be weighed alongside the benefits inherent in computerised contact lenses that were pioneered by Babak Parviz, an associate professor of bionanotechnology at the University of Washington.

Parviz likens his creation to the bionic eyesight possessed by Arnold Schwarzenegger's character in the Terminator movies. "A contact lens with simple built-in electronics is already within reach," Parviz says. "In fact, my students and I are already producing such devices in small numbers in my laboratory.

"We integrate control circuits, communication circuits, and miniature antennas into the lens using custom-built opto-electronic components. Those components will eventually include hundreds of LEDs, which will form images in front of the eye, such as words, charts and photographs.

"Much of the hardware is semi-transparent, so that wearers can navigate their surroundings without crashing into them or becoming disoriented. In all likelihood, a separate, portable device will relay displayable information to the lens' control circuit, which will operate the opto-electronics in the lens.

"We see a future in which the humble contact lens becomes a real platform, like the iPhone is today, with lots of developers contributing ideas and inventions... the possibilities extend as far as the eye can see, and beyond."

If screens have been windows into generated worlds, virtual reality lets us poke our heads inside and have a look around. Versions that take users into battle in Iraq are being used to treat US war veterans suffering post-traumatic stress: tech companies are making virtual cars and apartments for sales purposes; scientists are using it in molecular research and medicine; flight simulators have been used for years; and an exhibition in London in May let visitors ''experience'' walking on a tightrope above the city, dissect a heart and jump from a plane.

- FFX Aus

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