Invisible computers and augmented reality

Innovator Mark Billinghurst talks about his pet projects and Kiwi-style innovation

Whether you like them or hate them, mobile phones are part of the fabric of society these days, with ownership rates rocketing all around the world.

The inclusion of cameras in most cellphones available nowadays has added a new twist - one that the computer interface centre, HIT Lab NZ, in Christchurch is keen to exploit.

Mark Billinghurst, director of HIT Lab NZ recently won the World Class New Zealand Awards in the information category and communications technology. The awards are organised by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise and KEA (previously known as the Kiwi Expat Association).

The HIT Lab, at the University of Canterbury, has around 40 staff and is working on about 15 projects at the moment, says Billinghurst.

“A strong theme of what we are doing right now is innovation with mobile phones,” he says. “We are doing work with augmented reality where you take computer graphics and overlay them on the real world.”

Billinghurst and his team are investigating how mobile phone cameras can be used in new and innovative ways.

A former HIT Lab PhD student, Anders Henrysson from Sweden, won two awards at the International Mobile Gaming Awards in Barcelona in February for his mobile game AR (augmented reality) Tennis, which he developed during his internship at the HIT Lab. His two-player game concept uses two camera phones as virtual tennis rackets to hit a virtual ball across a tennis court map.

“That was the first time in the world that someone had made a collaborative, augmented reality game on a mobile phone,” says Billinghurst.

Billinghurst’s team is also looking at how phones can be used to capture data from different senses. Effectively, a mobile phone is a computer that people are carrying around with them, he says.

“The phones of today are far more powerful than the computers that I was using ten years ago,” he says.

For example, the phone could be used as a health monitor, he says. The user could wear a heart-rate sensor or a pedometer, and as the person goes running, the heart rate and the footfalls could be transmitted wirelessly to the mobile phone which would then store the data, says Billinghurst.

“But, also ... it can be used to process the data as well,” he continues. “For example, if you had a heart attack the phone would recognise that and call for help.”

Another research area involves using the mobile phone to better engage with the local community.

A modern trend is that people move into a suburb but commute to their workplace, and so don’t really get to know their neighbours, he says.

“We are doing a project with a research group in Australia looking at how you can use technology to enhance the feeling of community in your own neighbourhood. One of the ways to do that is to use mobile phones as a communication device — for example, by using Bluetooth’s capabilities to send and receive multimedia content for free.”

Another strong area for the HIT Lab is visualisation.

“We can put computer graphics on a three screen stereo projection system, so you can really feel immersed inside the graphics. It will give us a lot of visualisation capability.”

The system is the first of its type in New Zealand, he says. Billinghurst is hoping to engage with companies that have alot of data to look at; for example, urban design, architecture or product design companies.

Billinghurst sees several future trends in the computer interface area.

“First of all, computers are going to become invisible and disappear into other technology we use. People don’t think about that in a car, for instance. There are 15 to 20 [in-car]computers that all have very specific roles.”

As computers become more invisible we have more opportunities to interact with them in new ways, he says. He points out three areas that are “really hot” right now in the interface field – augmented reality; perceptual user interfaces, which involve giving the computer senses so it can perceive humans in a natural way; and tangible user interfaces, which is about using real objects to interact with the computer.

“A simple example of that is power steering in cars,” says Billinghurst.

“The steering wheel is no longer connected to the front wheels of the car, but we still use the steering wheel as opposed to a joystick or a mouse to steer the car, because it’s a natural, tangible object that interacts with the [power steering] computer.”

The HIT Lab’s work is in the overlap of these three areas, he says.

Billinghurst attended CeBIT – one of the world’s biggest ICT events – in Hanover, Germany, at the beginning of March. He had two roles: to showcase New Zealand innovations and to develop relationships with European research agencies.

He says that New Zealand has a lot to offer these agencies, in terms of unique technologies and cost-effective research.

“Research is more cost-effective here than elsewhere in the world,” he says. “But we don’t want international companies to invest in New Zealand just because it’s cost-effective. That’s just the icing of the cake.”

There is a lot of innovation and business creation going on in New Zealand, but the challenge for these businesses is to grow, says Billinghurst.

“To take a company from $1 million turnover to $50 million turnover – that’s where the challenge is.”

There is not a strong history of venture capital in New Zealand, or support to get from innovation to commercialisation, although the situation is improving, he says.

“But it’s not just the money. It’s also the experience of taking innovation to commercialisation. We don’t have a lot of experience of putting companies on the stock market, or turning patents into $100 million businesses.”

He also thinks that many New Zealand companies under-invest in research. From an OECD perspective, many countries are investing twice the percentage of their GDP in research and development that New Zealand does.

“It is a problem that we don’t have a strong history of reinvesting in innovation,” he says.

“HIT Lab’s role is to be a virtual R&D lab for small New Zealand companies,” he continues.

“They can come to us and engage with us, and get access to 40 researchers who can help add value to their products.”

To boost economic growth in New Zealand Billinghurst sees a need for mentoring from people with experience of going from innovation to commercialisation.

“The government itself has limited research dollars, and if it tries to spread them across all these possible options then we’ll end up under-investing in various areas of research. So, I think we need to decide on a few areas that we want to put our main efforts into, and then fund those for several years.”

Typically, it takes ten to 30 years for a product to go from an invention in a lab to use in the living room, he says.

“Most New Zealand companies don’t have the longevity to carry that process all the way through.”

He says that both the government and the companies involved could better engage in bringing innovations through to commercialisation.

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