Technology developers blurring the lines between real and virtual

Every week Techvibes republishes an article from Business in Vancouver. This article was originally published in issue #1071 – May 4 – 10, 2010.

Virtual reality, augmented reality and alternate reality are variations on a broader theme that’s becoming, well, a reality: the seamless blending of the physical environment with the digital, Internet and entertainment worlds.

Some B.C. companies and researchers are among the first to commercialize or to attempt to commercialize applications and devices that facilitate a new level of intimacy between the real and those other worlds.

They’re modest steps within a largely unexplored technology, but the results from companies like Canpages Inc. and Zeros 2 Heroes Media provide a glimpse into a future in which consumers can’t decipher the physical environment from those created by Hollywood producers.

In March, Burnaby’s Canpages added a layer of augmented reality to its Canada Eye app for the iPhone by using the phone’s GPS, compass and camera.

As users view their surroundings on the iPhone screen, pop-up windows provide information about directions and distance of locations and landmarks near them.

The app is essentially a version of Canpages’ phone directory superimposed onto real-time video.

It has been among the most popular apps in the productivity category in Canada on Apple Inc.’s App Store, and, according to Olivier Vincent, Canpages’ president and CEO, the company is working quickly to deliver the next-generation version.

Canpages isn’t directly monetizing augmented reality, but its app is another way for the company to engage with the consumer and, in turn, generate new ad revenue.

“Everything we can put out in terms of apps or services – that increases our global audience,” said Vincent.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia’s Human Communication Technologies Lab believe that a virtual-reality “Cubee” display cube they’re developing will have applications for research and video games.

Cubee has LED screens on each side and uses perspective and motion parallax – which is a depth cue that results from motions like shaking – to give viewers the perception that they could reach into the cube to retrieve real objects.

With a little refining, Cubee, which is still a prototype, could be a virtual stand-in for a fish tank.

Vancouver’s Zeros 2 Heroes Media (Z2H) is adding an augmented reality component to an alternate reality game it is creating for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN).

Whereas augmented and virtual reality blurs the lines between the digital and physical environments, alternate reality blurs the lines between entertainment and real life.

“[Alternate reality] is [about] creating an online experience where people aren’t sure at first whether it’s truth or fiction,” said Matt Toner, president of Z2H. “Then as they explore it further, they realize it’s this extended game experience, and then they play along.”

The goal of APTN’s game is to create a following for a new motion comic TV series before the series is launched. Toner described the series as a modern take on the traditional story of aboriginal culture and mythology.

In one scenario, consumers would trigger the next clue in the game by completing assigned tasks or finding destinations.

Toner noted that, by using popular and public domain imagery – such as Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of man – that’s found in public spaces and textbooks around the world, alternate-reality game developers can target a global audience.

“Augmented reality was kind of a little plaything with academics for a while, but it has really picked up recently in the entertainment space,” said Toner, noting that the recent District 9 and Star Trek movies included augmented reality components in their marketing.

UBC grad Stephen Cawood co-wrote Augmented Reality: A Practical Guide in 2008 to introduce the idea to programmers and hobbyists.

He noted that accounting for variables like a viewer’s perspective, multiple-sided objects and location – and ensuring that they all work together – takes a fair bit of programming savvy.

But open-source software such as Goblin XNA is appearing online and giving programmers a starting point on which to build virtual and augmented reality worlds.

He envisions a future in which consumers receive a constant flow of information about their surroundings through a small screen on a pair of eyeglasses.

“People will start to use these applications more and more, and they’ll become mainstream,” said Cawood, who works for a software developer in Halifax.

“They won’t know the underlying technology is augmented reality. They’ll just accept that this is the way it works.”

Or as Toner noted: “There could be a lot of cool applications for it, or it could be used to sell Burger King products.”