Reality: Virtual, Augmented And Perceived

Posted On: 2/2/2018

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The spring convention season is upon us, and one of the topics we're hoping to explore at the upcoming Amusement Expo International and The NAMA Show (formerly the National Automatic Merchandising Association's OneShow) is "extended reality." This includes "augmented reality" and "virtual reality," two emerging disciplines which apply many of the same technologies to applications with different uses, and both are often in the news.

Basically, "augmented reality" is a method of overlaying a view of the real world with images conveying additional information about the objects in it. The nomenclature has not yet settled down; Microsoft calls it "mixed reality," Intel has called it "merged reality," and there are other names as well.

Whatever one calls it, the concept has a long history. Modern development seems to have begun with the invention of the "heads-up display" for aviators. The earliest of these that we know of was introduced by Britain's Royal Air Force for night-fighter pilots during World War II. It displayed a crosshair gunsight with radar course data superimposed on it, so the pilot could steer toward a distant target while continuing to look straight ahead.

Heads-up displays have undergone steady improvement, replacing most of the optical components with electronic ones. Nowadays, too, the pilot's view of the sky ahead and ground below can be overlaid with information from sources other than the plane's own sensors. Versions of these displays have made their way into commercial aircraft and passenger cars. They also are poised to make their way into route operations.

One reported application, based on the second-generation Google Glass Enterprise Edition, is the RouteSight program from Wizzan Mobility (Elk Grove Village, IL). This enables a driver to view an image of the desired product display overlaid on the actual machine being serviced (see VT, August 2017). Wizzan calls this "assisted reality," and its potential advantages are obvious, from freeing the driver to work more efficiently to making it easier for management to update planograms.

The potential uses for something like this are limited only by the imagination. On the operations end, it might speed stock-picking in a warehouse, assist technicians repairing equipment in the field and so on and on. The customer end must await reintroduction of a second-generation consumer version of Google Glass; we think, for starters, that there are opportunities for directing people entering a micromarket or a vending area toward their desired products and promotional discounts, and for giving them additional information about available selections. We think this area is going to get interesting very quickly.

"Virtual reality," by contrast, is designed to convince the user that he or she actually is in an imagined world. In a sense, all "representational" art has been an attempt to present such a world; specific precursors have ranged from ancient "fool the eye" painting techniques to the design of motion picture sets and special effects. The excitement today results from the dizzyingly fast improvement in systems that can adapt a stereoscopic image to the direction in which the viewer is looking. The application of these techniques is at the core of a wide range of concepts for also engaging senses other than sight (and sound). If all this can be done in a manner that's easy to use and entertaining, it should have a bright future.

We are reminded that many of the mainstays of coin-op entertainment in the past were based on new technologies that everyone wanted, but relatively few could afford. While wealthy hobbyists assembled component high-fidelity systems for their living-rooms, most of us who grew up in the 1950s first experienced the expanded dynamic range and low noise figure of vinyl microgroove records by playing the jukebox in our local hospitality venues. Videogames had a similar, but shorter, trajectory. People who enjoyed the play action of games running on 8-bit computers and displayed on home television craved the brighter, sharper, more colorful images possible with a dedicated microprocessor and an RGB monitor. Game operators met that demand. It seems increasingly likely that many consumers will experience full-fledged virtual reality on a commercial system while they wait for home versions to become practical and affordable.

The term extended reality (or whatever) always puts us in mind of the marketing truism that's been prevalent for the past three decades or so: perception is reality. We remember a soluble-coffee salesman holding forth in a hotel lobby in 1968, to the effect that whether you're vending coffee made from powder, liquid concentrate or roast ground coffee, "If they like you, they'll like your coffee." Technology can do much, but the operator must take the final step of making the experience enjoyable and worth repeating.