Laser Augmented Reality Glasses Show You The Way

Tech companies like Google and Microsoft have been working on augmented reality (AR) wearables that can superimpose images over your field of view, blurring the line between the real and virtual. Unfortunately for those looking to experiment with this technology, the devices released so far have been prohibitively expensive.

While they might not be able to compete with the latest Microsoft HoloLens, these laser AR classes from [Joel] promise to be far cheaper and much more approachable for hackers. By bouncing a low-power laser off of a piezo-actuated mirror, the hope is that the glasses will be able to project simple vector graphics onto a piece of reflective film usually used for aftermarket automotive heads-up displays (HUDs).

Piezo actuators are used to steer the mirror.

[Joel] has put together a prototype of what the mirror system might look like, but says driving the high-voltage piezo actuators poses some unique challenges. The tentative plan is to generate the vector data with a smartphone application, send it to an ESP32 microcontroller within the glasses, and then push the resulting analog signals through a 100 V DC-DC boost converter to get the mirror moving.

We’ve seen the ESP32 drive a laser galvanometer to play a game of Asteroids, but recreating such a setup in a small enough package to fit onto a pair of glasses would certainly be an impressive accomplishment. Early tests look promising, but clearly [Joel] has quite a bit of work ahead of him. As a finalist for the Rethink Displays challenge of the 2021 Hackaday Prize, we’re looking forward to seeing the project develop over the coming months.

Augmented Reality On The Cheap With ESP32

Augmented reality (AR) technology hasn’t enjoyed the same amount of attention as VR, and seriously lags in terms of open source development and accessibility.  Frustrated by this, [Arnaud Atchimon] created CheApR, an open source, low cost AR headset that anyone can build at home and use as a platform for further development

[Arnaud] was impressed by the Tilt Five AR goggles, but the price of this cutting edge hardware simply put it out of reach of most people. Instead, he designed and built his own around a 3D printed frame, ESP32, cheap LCDs, and lenses from a pair of sunglasses. The electronics is packed horizontally in the top of the frame, with the displays pointed down into a pair of angled mirrors, which reflect the image onto the sunglasses lenses and into the user’s eyes. [Arnaud] tested a number of different lenses and found that a thin lens with a slight curve worked best. The ESP32 doesn’t actually run the main software, it just handles displaying the images on the LCDs. The images are sent from a computer running software written in Processing. Besides just displaying images, the software can also integrate inputs from a MPU6050 IMU and  ESP32 camera module mounted on the goggles. This allows the images to shift perspective as the goggles move, and recognize faces and AR markers in the environment.

All the design files and software is available on GitHub, and we exited to see where this project goes. We’ve seen another pair of affordable augmented reality glasses that uses a smartphone as a display, but it seems the headset that was used are no longer available.

Augmented Reality Aids In The Fight Against COVID-19

“Know your enemy” is the essence of one of the most famous quotes from [Sun Tzu]’s Art of War, and it’s as true now as it was 2,500 years ago. It also applies far beyond the martial arts, and as the world squares off for battle against COVID-19, it’s especially important to know the enemy: the novel coronavirus now dubbed SARS-CoV-2. And now, augmented reality technology is giving a boost to search for fatal flaws in the virus that can be exploited to defeat it.

The video below is a fascinating mix of 3D models of viral structures, like the external spike glycoproteins that give coronaviruses their characteristic crown appearance, layered onto live video of [Tom Goddard], a programmer/analysts at the University of California San Francisco. The tool he’s using is called ChimeraX, a molecular visualization program developed by him and his colleagues. He actually refers to this setup as “mixed reality” rather than “augmented reality”, to stress the fact that AR tends to be an experience that only the user can fully appreciate, whereas this system allows him to act as a guide on a virtual tour of the smallest of structures.

Using a depth-sensing camera and a VR headset, [Tom] is able to manipulate 3D models of the SARS virus — we don’t yet have full 3D structure data for the novel coronavirus proteins — to show us exactly how SARS binds to its receptor, angiotensin-converting enzyme-2 (ACE-2), a protein expressed on the cell surfaces of many different tissue types. It’s fascinating to see how the biding domain of the spike reaches out to latch onto ACE-2 to begin the process of invading a cell; it’s also heartening to watch [Tom]’s simulation of how the immune system responds to and blocks that binding.

It looks like ChimeraX and similar AR systems are going to prove to be powerful tools in the fight against not just COVID-19, but in all kinds of infectious diseases. Hats off to [Tom] and his team for making them available to researchers free of charge.

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Debugging PCBs With Augmented Reality

Mihir Shah has designed many a PCB in his time. However, when working through the development process, he grew tired of the messy, antiquated methods of communicating design data with his team. Annotating photos is slow and cumbersome, while sending board design files requires everyone to use the same software and be up to speed. Mihir thinks he has a much better solution by the name of InspectAR, it’s an augmented reality platform that lets you see inside the circuit board and beyond which he demoed during the 2019 Hackaday Superconference.

The InspectAR package makes it easy to visualise signals on the board.

The idea of InspectAR is to use augmented reality to help work with and debug electronics. It’s a powerful suite of tools that enable the live overlay of graphics on a video feed of a circuit board, enabling the user to quickly and effectively trace signals, identify components, and get an idea of what’s what. Usable with a smartphone or a webcam, the aim is to improve collaboration and communication between engineers by giving everyone a tool that can easily show them what’s going on, without requiring everyone involved to run a fully-fledged and expensive electronics design package.

The Supercon talk served to demonstrate some of the capabilities of InspectAR with an Arduino Uno. With a few clicks, different pins and signals can be highlighted on the board as Mihir twirls it between his fingers. Using ground as an example, Mihir first highlights the entire signal. This looks a little messy, with the large ground plane making it difficult to see exactly what’s going on. Using an example of needing a point to attach to for an oscilloscope probe, [Mihir] instead switches to pad-only mode, clearly revealing places where the user can find the signal on bare pads on the PCB. This kind of attention to detail shows the strong usability ethos behind the development of InspectAR, and we can already imagine finding it invaluable when working with unfamiliar boards. There’s also the possibility to highlight different components and display metadata — which should make finding assembly errors a cinch. It could also be useful for quickly bringing up datasheets on relevant chips where necessary.

Obviously, the electronic design space is a fragmented one, with plenty of competing software in the market. Whether you’re an Eagle diehard, Altium fanatic, or a KiCad fan, it’s possible to get things working with InspectAR. Mihir and the team are currently operating out of office space courtesy of Autodesk, who saw the value in the project and have supported its early steps. The software is available free for users to try, with several popular boards available to test. As a party piece for Supercon, our very own Hackaday badge is available if you’d like to give it a spin, along with several Arduino boards, too. We can’t wait to see what comes next, and fully expect to end up using InspectAR ourselves when hacking away at a fresh run of boards!

Tilt Five: A Fresh Take On Augmented Reality Tabletop Gaming

Tilt Five is an Augmented Reality (AR) system developed by Jeri Ellsworth and a group of other engineers that is aimed at tabletop gaming which is now up on Kickstarter. Though it appears to be a quite capable (and affordable at $299) system based on the Kickstarter campaign, the most remarkable thing about it is probably that it has its roots at Valve. Yes, the ones behind the Half Life games and the Steam games store.

Much of the history of the project has been covered by sites, such as this Verge article from 2013. Back then [Jeri Ellsworth] and [Rick Johnson] were working on project CastAR, which back then looked like a contraption glued onto the top of a pair of shades. When Valve chose to go with Virtual Reality instead of AR, project CastAR began its life outside of Valve, with Valve’s [Gabe] giving [Jeri] and [Rick] his blessing to do whatever they wanted with the project.

What the Tilt Five AR system looked like in its CastAR days. (credit: The Verge)

Six years later Tilt Five is the result of the work put in over those years. Looking more like a pair of protective glasses along with a wand controller that has an uncanny resemblance to a gas lighter for candles and BBQs, it promises a virtual world like one has never seen before. Courtesy of integrated HD projectors that are aimed at the retroreflective surface of the game board.

A big limitation of the system is also its primary marketing feature: by marketing it as for tabletop gaming, the fact that the system requires this game board as the projection surface means that the virtual world cannot exist outside the board, but for a tabetop game (like Dungeons and Dragons), that should hardly be an issue. As for the games themselves, they would run on an external system, with the signal piped into the AR system. Game support for the Tilt Five is still fairly limited, but more titles have been announced.

(Thanks, RandyKC)

The Augmented Reality Breadboard Of The Future

You’d be hard pressed to find a carpenter who didn’t own a hammer, or a painter that didn’t have a couple of brushes kicking around. Some tools are simply so fundamental to their respective craft that their ownership is essentially a given. The same could be said of the breadboard: if you’re working with electronics on the hobby or even professional level, you’ve certainly spent a decent amount of time poking components and wires into one of these quintessential prototyping tools.

There’s little danger that the breadboard will loose its relevance going forward, but if [Andrea Bianchi] and her team have anything to say about it, it might learn some impressive new tricks. Developed at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, VirtualComponent uses augmented reality and some very clever electronics to transform the classic breadboard into a powerful mixed-reality tool for testing and simulating circuits. It’s not going to replace the $3 breadboard you’ve got hiding at the bottom of your tool bag, but one day it might be standard equipment in electronics classrooms.

The short version is that VirtualComponent is essentially a dynamic breadboard. Holes in the same row are still electrically linked like in the classic breadboard, but with two AD75019 cross-point switch arrays and an Arduino in the base, it has the ability to virtually “plug in” components at arbitrary locations as selected by the user. So rather than having to physically insert a resistor, the user can simply tell the software to connect a resistor between two selected holes and the cross-point array will do the rest.

What’s more, many of those components can be either simulated or at least augmented in software. For example, by using AD5241 digital potentiometers, VirtualComponent can adjust the value of the virtual resistor. To provide variable capacitance, a similar trick can be pulled off using an array of real capacitors and a ADG715 digital switch to connect them together; essentially automating what the classic “Decade Box” does. In the demonstration video after the break, this capability is extended all the way out to connecting a virtual function generator to the circuit.

The whole system is controlled by way of an Android tablet suspended over the breadboard. Using the tablet’s camera, the software provides an augmented reality view of both the physical and virtual components of the circuit. With a few taps the user can add or edit their virtual hardware and immediately see how it changes the behavior of the physical circuit on the bench.

People have been trying to improve the breadboard for years, but so far it seems like nothing has really stuck around. Given how complex VirtualComponent is, they’ll likely have an even harder time gaining traction. That said, we can’t help but be excited about the potential augmented reality has for hardware development.

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Immersive Augmented Reality On A Budget

By now we’ve all seen the cheap headsets that essentially stick a smartphone a few inches away from your face to function as a low-cost alternative to devices like Oculus Rift. Available for as little as a few dollars, it’s hard to beat these gadgets for experimenting with VR on a budget. But what about if you’re more interested in working with augmented reality, where rendered images are superimposed onto your real-world view rather than replacing it?

As it turns out, there are now cheap headsets to do that with your phone as well. [kvtoet] picked one of these gadgets up for $30 USD on AliExpress, and used it as a base for a more capable augmented reality experience than the headset alone is capable of. The project is in the early stages, but so far the combination of this simple headset and some hardware liberated from inexpensive Chinese smartphones looks to hold considerable promise for delivering a sub-$100 USD development platform for anyone looking to jump into this fascinating field.

On their own, these cheap augmented reality headsets simply show a reflection of your smartphone’s screen on the inside of the lenses. With specially designed applications, this effect can be used to give the wearer the impression that objects shown on the phone’s screen are actually in their field of vision. It’s a neat effect to be sure, but it doesn’t hold much in the way of practical applications. To turn this into a useful system, the phone needs to be able to see what the wearer is seeing.

To that end, [kvtoet] relocated a VKWorld S8 smartphone’s camera module onto the front of the headset. Beyond its relatively cost, this model of phone was selected because it featured a long camera ribbon cable. With the camera on the outside of the headset, an Android application was created which periodically flashes a bright LED and looks for reflections in the camera’s feed. These reflections are then used to locate objects and markers in the real world.

In the video after the break, [kvtoet] demonstrates how this technique is put to use. The phone is able to track a retroreflector laying on the couch quickly and accurately enough that it can be used to adjust the rendering of a virtual object in real time. As the headset is moved around, it gives the impression that the wearer is actually viewing a real object from different angles and distances. With such a simplistic system the effect isn’t perfect, but it’s exciting to think of the possibilities now that this sort of technology is falling into the tinkerer’s budget.

If you don’t want to go the DIY route, Leap Motion has been teasing an open source augmented reality headset which has us quite excited. We’re still waiting on the hardware, but that hasn’t stopped hackers from coming up with some fascinating AR applications in the meantime.

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