Augmented reality, a compelling experience – but there are risks
AR has entered the mainstream beyond industry – boosted by the hit game Pokémon Go, launched in 2016. Here, virtual fantasy creatures hide in various places, and a gamer only sees them when he or she is nearby. Then, the figures show up on the smartphone display integrated into the user’s real surroundings. And that, in a nutshell, explains the appeal of augmented as opposed to virtual reality (VR): AR allows people to remain present in the real world instead of shutting it out. “A Pokémon apparently standing on my own coffee table in my actual surroundings has a much greater emotional effect on me than if I were to see it in an unknown setting,” Klinker explains.
At the same time, the compelling nature of AR can actually make it hazardous when users lose sight of the world around them. This is already an issue with pedestrians who fail to notice red lights because they are staring at their smartphones – now a regular occurrence on our streets. The German city of Augsburg has already reacted by installing ground lights aimed at preventing accidents when people are staring downwards onto their phones – an idea that has attracted major interest worldwide. Driver assistance systems are another example here. Whether their purpose is navigation, communication or entertainment – these systems must be laid out in a way that avoids distracting drivers. And we have to know when to step in. “It’s the same as with back-seat drivers – some people would be well advised to hold their tongue,” observes Klinker drily. The key question is: how much virtual information can someone absorb without losing concentration on their actual surroundings? Or, in short: how much distraction can a person take? Augmented rea lity allows people to remain present in the real world instead of shutting it out.
Keeping users keen by eye-tracking
As part of this research interest, Gudrun Klinker is currently working on the use of eye tracking in head-mounted displays. This involves recording and evaluating eye positions and movements of people wearing head-mounted displays. “We are improving eye tracking methods and trying to establish as precisely as possible where the user’s eyes are positioned behind the glasses and what they are looking at,” explains Klinker. This is essential for the glasses to display information in exactly the right place to overlay the physical objects it relates to. And that has significant consequences for the user. Tracking a user’s eyes enables them to control a program without a mouse, for instance – and let it know what they find interesting.
“This then raises the question: when are users looking for this type of added information and when are they just moving their eyes for no particular reason?”, specifies Klinker. For that reason, AR research involves not only computer scientists, but also educators, psychologists and methodologists, to determine how best to convey the information. And this directly leads to further questions: How can someone’s interest be aroused? And how can they be motivated to do something? “The nature of Homo ludens (Latin for “playing human”) is to develop new things by experimenting; through playful exploration. So it’s a matter of fueling this playful interest,” Klinker explains.
Here, she mentions storytelling and gamification – two key tools in this area. And researchers have long since been working on other AR devices besides the glasses. “The limited field of view means that glasses detract quite a bit from the reality of the experience, so you have to “bend” your senses to compensate. That’s why everyday objects hold great promise for AR.” Klinker is currently working with nutritional scientists and doctors to develop a drinking glass for older people, for example. This intelligent glass registers how much someone has drunk and gives them playful reminders to drink more if need be – for instance, by ceasing to show photos of their grandchildren on its integrated display. Klinker is also looking forward to further interdisciplinary research: “Now that the technology is so far advanced, we can focus on the psychological element too – which also means bringing in experts from other fields who were previously deterred by all the bits and bytes flying around.”
By Gitta Rohling