Augmented Reality, or AR, seems to be popping up in the headlines everywhere these days, as if it were something new, and exciting. And while AR is certainly exciting, it is not new. Well, kind of. As a technology, AR can trace its family heritage all the way back to 1968, in a room at Oxford University, and a small team led by computer science professor Ivan Sutherland. The team created a device which featured a heavy head mounted display that hung from the ceiling. Sutherland called his new device the Sword of Damocles, based on the legend of the same name. This headset allowed the user to experience a complete immersion into computer graphics and make them feel as though they were teleported into a different reality. Admittedly, The Sword of Damocles is closer related to modern day Virtual Reality (VR), rather than AR, however, this is the first recorded example of users being fully immersed in a computer-generated world. In fact, it would be another 22 years before Boeing Researcher Tom Caudell coined the term “Augmented Reality.”
Augmented Reality had, inevitably, made its way into the United States military by 1992, but not necessarily in the way we think of today. Louis Rosenberg, at the USAF Armstrong Labs at Brooks Air Force Base, developed a device knows as Virtual Fixtures which utilized a wearable, full upper-body, mechanical, exoskeleton. This exoskeleton was able to control two physical robots that were not connected to the wearer. The wearer of the exoskeleton would also wear a headset which had video feeds coming from the pair of robotic arms to make it seem as if the user were controlling the robotic arms as their own, instead of operating the machinery from afar. The mechanical, exoskeleton-based system that Rosenberg had created was out of necessity as 3D computer graphics at the time were too slow to represent a realistic environment which made the operation of the arms difficult. (We will be taking a deeper dive into the military uses of AR in a future post!)
Before the end of the 1990’s, the general public would see the benefits from augmented reality in something that we take for granted every Sunday. In 1998, Sportvision’s 1st & 10 Line computer is brought online during an NFL game between the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Baltimore Ravens. This system is much more complex than most people realize, and definitely made me appreciate the yellow line on the TV during the Browns’ games. In fact, the system is so complex that each game requires four people to manage eight different computers, and a tractor trailer full of equipment, and that is just the modern-day loadout. For its efforts, Sportvision has won multiple Emmy awards, and continues to be a staple of modern TV football coverage giving fans from around the world the ability to yell at the refs when they don’t give us the first down. (Author’s Note: I grew up with Sportvision’s yellow line, and as a kid I thought they actually painted it on the field after every first down, and I am almost ashamed to admit how long it was before I realized that was not the case. It was not while researching this topic, so not that bad…)
It was not until the first year of the new millennia, however, that augmented reality got a huge boost thanks to the efforts of Hirokazu Kato from the Nara Institute of Science and Technology in Japan. His work, the ARToolKit was an open-source software library that utilized early image tracking to overlay computer graphics on a video camera. These libraries played an important part in turning AR into what it is today for people like you and I and are still in use today. However, following a decline of the original community for the project in 2015, the software was overhauled in 2017 by RealMax, a leading Chinese AR company, with the plan to produce a new and improved open-source project, artoolkitX.
Of course, there are many other important steps in the AR story, however, in my opinion, these are the most important ones for the way we use this amazing technology today. In the coming weeks, we will be getting a glimpse behind the scenes of AR, and how it is being used by everyone from kids playing phone games, to soldiers on the battlefield. Until next time, have a wonderful day!
COO & Lead Ideation Engineer