Synthetic reality check
Researchers: Hook me up to the matrix, please
virtual, mixed, and augmented reality, synthetic reality (SR) technologies have been developed extensively for online gaming. But their real-world applications are becoming increasingly prevalent and significant.Reality isn't always what it seems to be – and that's a good thing, according to the proponents and practitioners of synthetic reality. A catchphrase for such "altered states" as
Two ubiquitous pop culture icons -- the blockbuster film Avatar and the Apple iPhone – are perfect examples of synthetic reality. Avatar uses a mixture of 3D production techniques and virtual reality to replace the real world with artificial stimuli. A popular iPhone application allows users to receive additional information and annotations about locations while pointing their cameras in that direction. This type of augmented reality supplements reality with synthetic information and content in a seamless way. A third area, known as mixed reality, combines the above two scenarios in various ways. Different types of synthetic reality tools are already being put to use in a wide variety of ways in such diverse domains as online communities, virtual worlds (such as Second Life), the 3D Internet, medicine, the military, entertainment, education, training, and more.
Synthetic reality in Haifa
"The differences between "real" and "virtual" are blurring in many respects - technological, social, and cultural," noted Prof. Doron Friedman, head of the Advanced Virtuality Lab at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Israel. Friedman recently served as the chair of the Synthetic Reality seminar in IBM Research - Haifa, which brought together nearly 150 Israeli developers to learn more about the science and applications of virtual reality technologies. Despite the cutting-edge nature and popular culture status of SR technologies, the field suffers from a lack of serious research. According to Friedman, many scientists shy away from associating their work with the domain, which they see as exclusively for gaming applications.
Dr. Benjamin Cohen from IBM co-organized the event together with Prof. Sheizaf Rafaeli from Haifa University and Prof. Miriam Reiner from the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology. Dr. Cohen, who leads synthetic reality research at IBM Research – Haifa, explained that the symposium was designed to bring together the very diverse group of researchers who are actively working on various aspects of synthetic reality in Israel.
The seminar featured a packed program of lectures, invited talks, and demos. Prof. Adrian David Cheok, the director of the Mixed Reality Lab at the National University of Singapore delivered the keynote address. In his talk, Dr. Cheok described his pioneering work introducing touch to VR applications. (Most virtual reality apps are based only on audio and video.) Some of these somewhat controversial applications enable users to pet animals from afar and even experience such physical interactions as hugging or even kissing remotely. Other invited talks were given by Prof. Patrice L. (Tamar) Weiss from the University of Haifa and Dr. Maria Korman from the Technion.
The demo session and short talks allowed a number of startup companies and university researchers to present their work, which included such unique applications as 3D displays that don't require special glasses, service bots that collect data in virtual worlds, and a new interactive depth camera. The more academic-oriented talks investigated the interactive connection between the human brain and new SR technology as well as the implications for various aspects of society--including culture, history, architecture, and more--as virtual reality tools advance.
"The event was very eclectic by design," explained Friedman. "One of our goals was to expose people to the wide variety of work being done in Israel on these topics and try to inject this domain into academic research."
Looking to the future
What does the future hold for synthetic reality? The sky (or perhaps Pandora) is the limit, but Doron Friedman explained that by looking at current trends we can get an idea of what areas will become increasingly significant.
"I sense that things are changing, especially since so many young children already take part in virtual worlds like Webkinz and Club Penguin. They are essentially natives to the concepts of avatars, construction and design of virtual objects, and even 3D presentation," he summed up, laughing. "Eventually, we're all going to live in the matrix."