Currently, there’s an explosion of Augmented Reality (AR) projects, with fifteen new Unity-based apps appearing on the App Store alone everyday. They add a virtual layer to the real world that you can see through a camera or in a special display.
AR brings radical innovations to countless areas, from guiding tourists and selling air conditioning to building aircraft carriers. But it can go even further than that. Some predict AR will bring about the era of natural computing that will free us from staring into monitors all day.
Films like Iron Man or Minority Report show what this could one day look like. But AR is already a practical feature that provides a livelihood to a number of studios. One of them is Dutch studio TWNKLS, which won the industry’s Auggie Award with its Otolift app. Using a few markers and an iPad, it shows clients exactly how a staircase lift would change their home and gathers precise measurements for manufacturing.
A more everyday example is Birthday Card AR by Fuzzy Logic, a studio based in South Africa. It’s a free to play interactive experience for children, who can view the birthday cards through an app to see them come to life with flowers and dinosaurs.
Unity editor extensions like Vuforia are used to build apps that recognize real world markers which trigger content displayed on a device. “If you want the smoothest tracking of markers like photos or graphical materials, look no further than Qualcomm Vuforia, it is amazing,” says CTO of TWNKLS Lex van der Sluijs. Jason Ried of Fuzzy Logic adds that it’s easy to learn: “They have a number of easy to follow tutorials which we would recommend – and once you've completed them you can just start experimenting with ideas of your own.”
Device performance can be a major headache for AR app developers. “The video camera feed and the image tracking algorithms take a large chunk of the processing time, so we have to be careful with the complexity of our skinned characters,” says Jason Ried. Lex van der Sluijs also found that full screen video in a scene with AR tracking can easily crash an app.
Currently, AR is also limited by the size of device displays, whether it’s a mobile device used as a “magic lens” or a stationary display used as a “magic mirror”. Even when playing Sharky the Beaver, which uses a real robot instead of a marker, users still have to carry their smartphone around to see it. CEO of TWNKLS Gerben Harmsen says that one obstacle for mainstream adoption of AR is the lack of really good AR glasses.
This is where meta comes in, a project that started at Columbia University and in less than a year raised funds to create hardware with features that go beyond those of Google Glasses. meta's glasses show a natural field of vision. They’re coupled with a gesture recognition camera that enables interaction with virtual objects.
Unity as the springboard
“We predict that in the future, Unity will become something of an operating system for AR, because it provides a great pipeline to work with 3D assets,” says meta founder and CEO Meron Gribetz.
Since its successful Kickstarter, meta has been busy getting the SDK out of the door, so that the 500 interested developers they've initially registered can get cracking in Unity creating apps for the platform and more can join in. GameDraw, has been the first app to port to meta. Based on the popular Unity asset, it enables sculpting 3D models with hand gestures.
Eyes on fashion, pioneers on board
The meta 1 Developer Kit, with hardware based on Epson and SoftKinetic gear, will ship in September, but the consumer version promises to be very different than the clunky prototype, and future iterations will follow eyewear fashion. Meta collaborates with product designer Martin Hasek, whose slick LoadAR concept glasses were originally aimed at Google. At the same time, meta is deeply rooted in the ideas of AR visionaries, like its chief scientist, Steve Mann, a pioneer of wearable computing, and adviser Steve Feiner, who has been working on interactive glasses technology since 1990.
For Gerben Harmsen, AR goes even deeper than “just” replacing the computer: “As humans we live as much in the physical world as in the intangible world of relationships, stories, information, emotion, the future and the past. In that sense, ‘augmented reality’ is simply the next big step in bringing these worlds closer together. For example, an app for designing rooms is a way to bring your future interior into the here and now”.
Is the AR revolution around the corner? The innovations come so fast that it’s hard to tell what’s realistic and what’s still sci-fi. One thing is certain: if it happens, Unity will be a part of it. Jason Ried calls Unity an “absolutely integral” tool for AR and he’s far from the only one. “We feel that Unity truly is the best platform for creating both game- and non-game AR applications,” says Gerbern Harmsen.