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The view from Inside Epson's Moverio smart glasses program

Is It Live? Or Is It Augmented Reality?

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“You know, there’s probably a few million people playing video games in Brooklyn right now,” Mark Skwarek guessed. “I don’t know who they are. They’re having an isolated experience.”

And Mark should know— he used to be one of them. Before he was a full-time faculty member at New York University Polytech and its director of the mobile augmented reality lab, Skwarek did a lot of virtual reality work. He spent a lot of time in multi-user online games and, as many in that field do, getting completely immersed in his work. He confesses that it took a lot to get him out from behind the computer.

But then he started working with augmented reality—before there were any mobile devices to use it on. It took a significant amount of work to build an app without the actual phone, but they had it ready as soon as the iPhone 3GS launched.

Frustrated by the amount of effort it took to make any changes, Skwarek found the web-based content service Hoppala that had created an app to allow people to place augments anywhere on Earth. For example, he could create a model of a Tyrannosaurus Rex at the Brooklyn Bridge, and if you went there with a mobile device and the app, you could see it in all its 3-D glory. And even though it was easier to make changes on this app than their first iteration, you couldn’t make changes to the app onsite.

Soon, a crossover occurred between Skwarek’s augmented reality app and his art career, and it didn’t just get him out from behind the computer—he also started to travel. He started creating high-profile AR “installations”, like in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. “I would basically travel along the DMZ and create this artwork,” remembered Skwarek. Other destinations included the Israeli-Palestine border, the U.S.-Mexico border, South America, Australia and Europe.

Finally, the digital work had released him from being shackled to the computer, and it opened his eyes.

“It made the real world more exciting for me,” Skwarek said. “I could do anything I wanted, without all the permits you needed to have art realized in the public space. You can put art anywhere you want, even the White House—and we did.”

When Skwarek accepted the full-time position at NYU, it gave him access to better tools, and allowed him to do more with his project. Being able to make changes onsite had always been his goal, but now Skwarek also wanted to make it as easy as possible for any level of user to get on board and become part of the augmented reality movement that was just taking off.

“To me, people have great ideas then are held back by the technology barrier,” explained Mark. “Our app, Create AR, allowed people to make stuff anywhere and everywhere, and modify it at the location they created it. We found that this was wildly popular.”

So, they were on the right track. But it still didn’t have the complex interactivity that they were looking for. “I could create my own digital world, but it’s still not interactive. We wanted to make the real world exciting enough to go out and explore, without breaking someone’s digital experience.”

The team took a chance and created Play AR, which basically turns the entire planet into a multi-user online video game, but one that’s skewed towards people working together in physical reality. Each player claims their own space in the world, and customizes it as they wish, and fortifies it against the advances of other players. “I could make a giant billboard above my office at NYU or have a waterfall,” explained Skwarek. “I could even put unicorns on my front lawn.”

Right now, Skwarek and his team are focusing on the game play aspect, but they are also looking to refine the Play AR experience, which includes first person view (FPV) technology, like the Moverio BT-200s. “If you want to hit the larger markets, gaming on a phone is not enough. It’s still great, but the next step with the glasses is going to be a lot cooler.”

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